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Our times are hardly short of issues that can induce fear, anxiety and dread, so do we need any more, let alone words to describe them?

These worried musings were induced by an online survey in 2008 for the Post Office in the UK. It found that 55% of the 2,000 people who contributed said that they never switch off their mobile phone as they want to keep in touch with friends or family; 9% said that having their phone switched off makes them anxious.

The Post Office’s survey firm coined a term for this fear: nomophobia, which only makes sense in a country that calls the devices mobile phones, as it’s short for “no mobile phobia”. It’s dreadful faux-Greek, but then there’s no classical term for being without a telephone that could have been used. The term cellphobia, better suited to Americans who describe their devices as cellphones, is known online but hasn’t reached print media.

When the 2008 survey results came out, Stewart Fox-Mills of the Post Office was quoted in the Glasgow Daily Record as saying that “Being out of mobile contact may be the 21st century’s latest contribution to our already hectic lives. Whether you run out of credit, lose your phone or are in an area with no reception, being phoneless can bring on panicky symptoms.” The Post Office press release claimed hyperbolically that nomophobia “now ranks alongside traditionally stressful situations such as getting married, starting a new job and going to the dentist.”

At the time, it looked as though it was fated to vanish like other neologisms coined to encourage publicity for survey results, but it confounded its critics — including me — to become a minor item in British journalists’ vocabularies, though usually with humorous intent. It achieved some significant usage in February 2012 and August 2013 following further surveys on phone usage. The derived form nomophobic, for a person afflicted with nomophobia, has also achieved some UK press coverage.

Since Greek nomos means “law”, a more etymologically appropriate sense of nomophobia is of a neurotic fear of the law; this has some currency, in moral or spiritual writing in particular in which the law is that of God.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 05 Apr 2008; Last updated 03 Sep 2013