Word Nerd: Don’t read this if you have hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia

Four score years ago, minus one, Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared: “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.”

Well, it appears Roosevelt was wrong. The site phobialist.com lists more than 500 phobias that might plague someone. Some aren’t widespread, such as cherophobia, the fear of gaiety; leukophobia, the fear of the colour white; geniophobia, the fear of chins; and genuphobia, the fear of knees. Moreover, one suspects that with a fear like arachibutyrophobia, the fear that peanut butter will adhere to the root of your mouth, and hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia, the fear of long words, there is more neology at play than psychology.

Years ago I was convinced that my wheaten terrier suffered from automatonophobia because he once barked at a scarecrow. The aforementioned list defines this condition as “the fear of ventriloquist dummies, wax statues, anything that falsely represents a sentient being.”

I was made aware of this condition thanks to an article I had just read in Time magazine about phobias. This article also highlighted a woman who wore rubber-soled shoes when opening a refrigerator and in the event of a lightbulb not functioning would wait hours for someone to change it for her. Nor could she shop for clothes lest static on garments impel her to run screaming from a shop.

Also swimming at night was out of the question, lest underwater lights electrocute her. This woman suffered from electrophobia, the morbid fear of electricity; phobialist.com lists it before eleutherophobia, fear of freedom, and after eisoptrophobia, the fearing of mirrors, or seeing oneself in a mirror.

Fears may have a flip side. If you possess uranophobia you’re afraid of heaven—hadephobia, your aversion is hell. Calignephobia denotes a fear of beautiful women and cacophobia, a fear of ugliness. If you’re afraid of all your relatives, you have syngenesophobia. If you’re afraid of your mother-in-law, you have pentheraphobia; if both your in-laws terrify you, your condition is called soceraphobia. Medomalacuphobia is the fear of losing an erection, medorthophobia is the fear of an erect penis while ithyphallophobia is the fear of seeing, thinking about, or having an erect penis. Who knew?

Many of the phobias listed are recorded in the OED, including aerophobia, fear of drafts; bogyphobia, fear of bogeymen; coprophobia, fear of feces; deipnophobia, fear of dining; siderodromophobia, fear of rail travel; tæniiphobia, fear of tapeworm; and triskaidekaphobia, fear of the number 13. If you suffer from papaphobia, the OED relates that you possess a “distempered dread of the pope or popery.”

Xenophobia is the fear of foreign people. One can, not suprisingly given the plethora of phobias, specify which particular group freaks you out. Some examples are Bolshe (Bolsheviks), Franco or Gallo (French), Judeo (Jews), Sino (Chinese), Teuto or Germano (German) and Waloon (Waloons), French-speaking people living in southern Belgium).

However, if you are afflicted with Hellenologophobia, you are not afraid of Greeks, but of Greek terms or complicated scientific terminology. Just recently, after Canadian diplomats at the United Nations walked out when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave a speech, the Iranian leader accused Canada of “Iranophobia.” This coinage, however, has not yet been approved by the OED.

Seemingly any animal can make someone cringe: bird (ornithophobia), cat (ailurophobia), chicken (alektorophobia), fish (ichthyophobia), frogs (ranidaphobia), horse (equinophobia), otter (lutraphobia), shellfish (ostraconophobia), toad (bufonophobia) and wasp (spheksophobia).

The word and suffix phobia comes from the Greek phobos, “fear.” Phobos was the son of the Greek god of war Ares. When he accompanied Dad into battle, Phobos had the affect of instilling fear in all whom he encountered. The first citation of “phobia” in the OED is in 1786: “I shall begin by defining Phobia … to be a fear of an imaginary evil, or an undue fear of a real one.”

Samuel Coleridge is credited with the next citation in a letter he wrote in 1801 in which he employed a facetious usage: “I have a perfect phobia of inns and coffee-houses.”

Roosevelt was right about one thing. We must fear fear itself. This is listed as phobophobia—the fear of fear itself.


Howard Richler’s next book, From Happy to Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts, will be published next spring.

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