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Fears and dreads

An enquirer of the newsgroup alt.usage.english recently asked for the word that described an irrational fear of dogs. In such circumstances, a word ending in phobia is bound to be appropriate, because this is now the standard term for any extreme aversion, irrational fear or dread. After searching my sources for examples of the appropriate word, curiosity led me to look into similar terms.

It is so strongly associated with modern psychiatry and pop-psychology that it is a little surprising to discover that as a word in its own right phobia dates back as far as 1786. Its source is the Greek word meaning “fear; horror”, which also turns up in a closely-related form in the name of one of the two moons of Mars, Phobos, so called in 1877 by its discoverer, the American Asaph Hall, after one of the two horses that in legend pulled the war chariot of the Greek god of war (the other being Deimos, “panic”, which name he gave to the other moon).

Most people only know a very few of the more common words formed using the suffix -phobia. Claustrophobia is a fear of enclosed spaces, from the Latin claustrum, originally “bar, bolt, lock” but later “a confined or shut-up space”, from which we also derive cloister, and close in the sense of an enclosure, court or quadrangle. Agoraphobia comes from the Greek word agora which originally meant an assembly but came to refer to the place of assembly and so any open space, especially a marketplace, thus leading to its sense of a fear of open spaces. Less common is acrophobia, “fear of heights”; this derives from the Greek akros for a thing that is topmost, or at the tip or extremity of something. One word physically close to that origin is acropolis, literally “upper city”, but more normally translated “citadel”, as being a structure one usually wishes to place on a commanding height. The same prefix turns up in acronym, a word formed from the tips, or beginnings, of other words, and in acromegaly, literally “large extremities”, in reference to deformations of the hands, feet or face. Rather less obviously it is also related to acrobat, this being a person who — so far as the origin of the word elements is concerned — performs on tiptoe. Other standard phobias are nyctophobia, a fear of the dark (of the night, to be literal about the Greek root), and ochlophobia a fear of crowds, from the Greek words for night and crowd respectively.

Also well known is hydrophobia, literally “fear of water”, as a name for rabies, which sometimes appears to cause such a sensation in sufferers because it makes the throat swell and so it becomes difficult for the victim to swallow. Much less common is lyssophobia, the fear of contracting rabies, formed using the original Greek word for the disease, lyssa. There are several other unusual terms for the fear of contracting various sorts of diseases, such as: choleraphobia, leprophobia, meningitophobia, syphilophobia and tuberculophobia are all easy to identify from their roots (though syphilophobia might equally be a fear of shepherds, since the disease was named after the shepherd subject of the poem Syphilis, sive morbus Gallicus, “Syphillis or the French Disease”, by Girolamo Fracastoro, published in 1530). Toxiphobia is obviously a fear of being poisoned (from Greek toxon, a bow, which has given us toxophily for the sport of archery, and which generated a Greek compound toxicon, “a poison for putting on arrows” which was taken into Latin and later reached us as toxic). All these terms are examples of nosophobia or pathophobia, “fear of disease”, the former deriving from one Greek word for disease, nosos, the latter from pathos (Greek “suffering; disease”, which makes a combining form patho- in medical English as well as a standalone word). Or perhaps we can summarise them all as either algophobia, a fear of pain, or thanatophobia, a fear of death, both derived from the equivalent Greek words.

The suffix has been immensely useful in permitting the English language to generate a whole range of words relating to a morbid fear of certain groups of outlanders (a condition which in general is usually called xenophobia, from the Greek xenos, “stranger; foreigner”). As examples, there are Francophobia (and also Gallophobia), Hispanophobia, Russophobia (for most of this century also Sovietophobia), Germanophobia (as well as Teutonophobia), Polonophobia, Italophobia, and Sinophobia. A common one in British newspapers at the moment is Europhobia, not a fear of Europe as such, but rather a distaste for or aversion to the European Union. There are words for a fear of England (Anglophobia) and of Scotland (Scotophobia, which with a lower-case initial letter is also another word for the fear of the dark, from the Greek skotos, “dark”), but there seem to be no equivalent terms recorded for the Welsh and Irish, though Cambrophobia and Hibernophobia would serve well enough if needed. There are phobia terms for many religions, including Islamophobia, Judeophobia, and Christophobia, not to mention theophobia, an irrational fear of God’s anger, ecclesiophobia, a morbid dread of or aversion to ecclesiasticism, pneumatophobia, a terror of spiritual matters, teleophobia, a fear of design or final causes, or hierophobia, a fear or horror of sacred things or persons.

But the word is such a useful little suffix that it has been immensely overused this century both in psychiatry and popular writing, with dozens of compounds being noted in larger dictionaries. Here are some of the more uncommon ones I’ve found: cremnophobia, a dread of precipices or steep places (from the Greek kremnos, an overhanging cliff); arachnophobia, a morbid fear of spiders (Greek, arachni, “spider”), brontophobia, a dread of thunderstorms and thunder (from the Greek for thunder that turns up also in brontosaurus, the “thunder lizard”); erythrophobia (a fear or dread of blushing, from the Greek erythros, “red”); gynophobia (a fear of women, from the same root that gives us gynaecology); ergophobia (dread of work, from the Greek ergon that has been used to create ergonomics, the study of work practices); hypnophobia (a fear of falling asleep, from the same Greek root that appears in hypnosis); mycophobia (fear of mushrooms); ailurophobia a dread of cats (there are several words for this particular malaise, including a variant form elurophobia as well as felinophobia, galeophobia, and gatophobia; what’s so terrible about cats that so many are needed?), hippophobia, fear of horses (a hippopotamus is literally a “river horse”, which will tell you the literal meaning of potamophobia, though it is also used for a unreasoning fear of any large body of water); hodophobia, a fear of travelling, hylophobia, fear of forests, thalassophobia, a terror of the sea; neophobia, the fear of change; rupophobia (fear of dirt, or conceivably of sealing wax, since it could be derived from the Greek rupon with that sense); pyrophobia (fear of fire); and sitiophobia (fear of food, though the Greek root is such that it ought strictly to be fear of bread or grain; there is also the related phagophobia, a fear of eating).

It’s so easy to make up such words that most writers seem to have a go at it at some time or other (either that, or they make lists of words for phobias). They turn up fairly regularly in the lighter type of article in our more serious journals and newspapers. For example, several have been coined in recent years to describe a terror of some newish examples of technology: computerphobia, cyberphobia, cybertechnophobia, telephobia and technophobia. My favourite such formation is anoraknophobia, which could be a terror of trainspotters but is more likely to be used for a fear of such manifestations of information technology as the World Wide Web, though Wired magazine once defined it as “the unreasonable fear that joining the digital revolution will somehow lead one into unprompted fashion mistakes”.

Then there’s ericophobia, a fear of heathland; horophobia, a terror of clocks and — especially — clockfaces; successophobia (which Douglas Coupland defined as “the fear that if one is successful, then one’s personal needs will be forgotten”); cyclophobia a severe aversion to cyclists; deipnophobia, a fear of dinner parties (Greek deipnon, “dinner”), dromophobia, a terror of crossing streets; linonophobia, a fear of string, anthophobia, fear of flowers, ombrophobia, a fear of rain, harpaxophobia, fear of robbers, symmetrophobia, a horror of symmetry; and triskaidekaphobia the fear of the number 13.

If you have a number of phobias, you may be said to have polyphobia; if your fear is of being afraid, you may suffer from phobophobia. If your fear has no observable cause, you have panophobia, “a causeless terror”, which is also used along with panphobia for a fear of everything (the opposite and possibly even more worrying affliction is pantaphobia, the irrational absence of fear, from pant-, “all; everything” and aphobia, “fearlessness”). If you are lucky, you may only have paraphobia, a mild case of phobia.

Since you are reading this, you are unlikely to be suffering from logophobia, a terror of words in general, though you might have onomatophobia, a fear of hearing certain words spoken, or have contracted bibliophobia, a horror of books, glossophobia, a fear of speaking, or papyrophobia, a fear of paper, or even theatrophobia, an aversion to theatres and plays. I know several authors and playwrights who have a bad case of criticophobia, a dread of critics.

Let us return to our dogs. If we are to form our phobia words with due regard to the linguistic origins of their elements, we should stick to Greek roots. This would make a fear of dogs cynophobia. However, the OED has a couple of examples of its antonym, for which people have for some reason coined canophilia, using the Latin canis; rightly, the OED says this is an irregular formation. As a lifelong cat-lover, I can only concur.

Page created 17 May 1997
Last updated 31 May 1997

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Last modified: 31 May 1997.