What's the origin of the term microbe? According to related definitions and topics, I think it may be micro + be. If it is, what does "be" stand for?

1 Answer 1


It comes from Greek, via French.

  • microbe, etymology - late 19th century: from French, from Greek mikros ‘small’ + bios ‘life.’
  • popular name for a bacterium, 1878, from French microbe, "badly coined ... by Sédillot" [Weekley] in 1878 from Greek mikros "small" (see mica) + bios "life" (see bio-). It is an incorrect use of bios; in Greek the word would mean literally "short-lived." Online Etymology Dictionary

Therefore, literally it means "small life" and "microscopic life" scientifically speaking.

  • 1
    I got the impression that "microbe" is often used to refer to all "microscopic life," as you say, which would include an archæon, protozoön or fungal spore as well as the bacterium mentioned in that dictionary entry. It appears to be a synonym of "micro-organism." I guess viruses would technically be excluded by that definition. But interestingly, I found a site that lists them as a possible category of "microbes" nonetheless: microbeworld.org/what-is-a-microbe
    – herisson
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 16:04
  • What about micro organization?
    – Rwy5
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 20:45
  • @sumelic In medicine we consider "microbe" any living creature not visible to the naked eye. The word used in the scientific world is micro-organisms, and this includes all bacteria, viruses, protozoa and fungi. Prions, as far as I know, are still unclassified.
    – Centaurus
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 23:20
  • @Centaurus: well, there seems to be a bit of controversy about whether the definition of "living creature" should include viruses. I wrote a question about it that you'll see linked to the right of this one.
    – herisson
    Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 1:29

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