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When an American president tells people not to panic, everybody sits up and takes notice. Some even turn to their dictionaries.

They will find that the word comes from that most earthy of Greek gods, Pan, he of the human upper and goat lower half, or sometimes the other way round. A goat he certainly was, being both priapic and fertile. (Schoolboys of a certain cast of mind used to get a dutiful snigger out of those opening lines by Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “What was he doing, the great god Pan, Down in the reeds by the river?” It was a let-down when it turned out he was just making his pipes.) He was the god of rural places, where one should be wary, especially in the heat of the noonday sun, lest one disturb his slumbers.

He was supposed to be the source of that irrational fear that even today timid travellers into woods and other wild places may feel, as their back hairs quiver and they constantly search for danger behind every bush, startled by the least noise. Indeed, the quieter the hush, the greater the risk of sudden fright caused by small sounds — the ones which Pan was supposed to make.

We have many words for the emotion induced by something unpleasant or dangerous, whether actual, prospective or imagined. The most general, and the least intense, are fear, anxiety, alarm and fright. Horror suggests revulsion at some sight or circumstance and, like terror, is the result of direct personal experience. Terror is the most intense of all the words (it comes from an Indo-European root meaning to shake or tremble), and also the most direct, since it follows some real and immediate threat.

Panic, on the other hand, is fear of a special kind, in which one is given over to uncontrollable emotion and unthinking behaviour. It is a contagious emotion, running through a crowd like a sudden epidemic, turning a group into a mob and precipitating unconsidered and hasty action. The Greeks emphasised the groundless nature of the fear — that you were reacting to what you thought might be there, not to any real and present danger. These days, panic is often the word used to describe collective anxiety about financial and commercial matters. President Bush’s word is therefore all too aptly chosen.

However, it is a curious characteristic of panic that to name it is often to cause it, and that exhortations against it can have the opposite effect. Think of Corporal Jones in the old BBC sitcom Dad’s Army: “Don’t panic!”, he would cry, panicking. Its publishers meant well when they had those words inscribed in large friendly letters on the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but I can’t believe they were always as reassuring as Arthur Dent found them.

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

Page created 24 Mar 2001