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germaphobe

or germ·o·phobe

[ jur-muh-fohb ]
/ ˈdʒɜr məˌfoʊb /
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noun

a person who has an irrational or disproportionate fear of germs and contamination.

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Also called my·so·phobe [mahy-suh-fohb] /ˈmaɪ səˌfoʊb/ .

Origin of germaphobe

First recorded in 1890–1900; germ + -a- connecting vowel + -phobe
germ·a·pho·bi·a, germ·o·pho·bi·a, noungerm·a·pho·bic, germ·o·pho·bic, adjective
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2021

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What does the term germaphobe mean?

A germaphobe, also spelled germophobe, is a person who is afraid of germs or preoccupied with cleanliness.

Specifically, it can refer to a person who has an obsessive compulsion toward cleanliness to the point that their life is impacted by an urge to constantly clean their hands and living spaces. Germaphobes may or may not have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Where did the term germaphobe come from?

A germaphobe literally refers to someone who is fearful (-phobe) of germs. The earliest uses of the word are rhetorical or humorous in tone, as the word is still so used today.

Germophobia appears in an 1893 edition of the journal Medical Record: “Law is intended for sinners; and germophobia does its fine work among the criminal classes—those who get sick, I mean, through willful [sic] or indifferent violation of the hygienic precepts of the physical decalogue.”

Germophobe appears in 1894 as a snarky signature to a letter to London’s historic Punch magazine: “Are these microbes season-ticket-holders? If so, what are the companies about? Germaphobe.”

Its early colorful uses aside, germaphobia is commonly associated with mysophobia, an irrational fear of contamination, which American doctor William Alexander Hammond coined when studying a case of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in 1879.

Some germaphobes may clinically suffer from OCD and related disorders, which manifest themselves as intense and debilitating fears of germs. Others germaphobes, however, have an excessive, though not pathological, compulsion toward neatness or revulsion to dirt and bacteria.

Outside of clinical contexts, people often label themselves germaphobes to explain certain behaviors, which include avoiding shaking hands with other people, ritually continually cleaning surfaces at home and in public, and an obsession with trying not to get sick.

A number of celebrities, including Charlize Theron and Howie Mandel, have spoken out about being germaphobes and the negative effect it has had on their lives. President Donald Trump also notably called himself “very much a germophobe” in 2017, which lead to a spike in interest and searches for the word.

Interest in germaphobe also spiked in 2019, with increased hand-washing during the coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19). And no, if we may editorialize for a moment, you’re not a germaphobe for washing your hands a lot during the outbreak—you’re helping slow the spread of disease!

Germaphobes have also been featured in popular media, such as in characters like Adrian Monk from the crime comedy Monk and Peggy, Elaine’s coworker in Season 9 of Seinfeld.

How to use the term germaphobe

While it can refer to a person with a clinical fear of germs as a result of OCD, a germaphobe can casually refer to someone whose preference for tidiness and cleanliness is considered abnormal, often used by such individuals themselves.

Those diagnosed with OCD whose symptoms manifest as germophobia are sometimes offended by more flippant uses of germaphobe. Germaphobe is sometimes used, out of disrespect or ignorance of the condition, as a generic term for a person with OCD, due to popular stereotypes about OCD symptoms (e.g., compulsive hand-washing).

More examples of germaphobe:

“MYTH: OCD is just about cleaning, hand-washing and being a ‘germaphobe.’”
—Ralph Ryback, Psychology Today, May 2016    ​

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

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