or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, October 30, 2006

Fear Itself

One of the things that really irritates me--a persistent theme in these pages--is the use of "phobia", or some word compounded out of it, to refer to a mere fear. That's not a phobia. If I'm afraid of burning to death and take steps to make sure that doesn't happen--by, say, keeping an extinguisher in the kitchen and not falling into campfires--that's not a phobia, that's just common sense, even if death by burning is the worst thing I can think of. If I'm terrified of open flames and things that could theoretically burst into flame: if I can't walk into a store that sells candles, even though they be unlit: if I begin to panic upon spying a chandelier with those light bulbs that resemble flickering flames...well, that would probably qualify as full-blown pyrophobia. A proper phobia is consuming, irrational, and debilitating (which is why I'm not happy with the term "homophobia", either: some compound with "miso-", "hate", would be more to the point).

And so of course there are endless lists of would-be phobias, as here: agyrophobia, the fear of crossing streets! Theophobia, the fear of gods! Spectrophobia, the fear of looking into a mirror! What rot. Silly, made-up names for things people say they're afraid of. A phobia is a disabling fear, not just a distaste for something. (This moderately famous video of a talk-show guest being terrified by a plate of pickles is more in the ballpark: Jim thinks she's faking it, and she probably is, to get her fifteen minutes of fame, but a phobia is by its very definition irrational, and I expect that's what a proper phobia would look like.) This Wikipedia page expresses it well:

In many cases people have coined these words as neologisms, and only a few of them occur in the medical literature. In many cases, the naming of phobias has become a word game.

But I didn't mind such words being used in this New Yorker article about some clever Hallowe'en haunted houses that were developed by asking New Yorkers what they were most afraid of, and then building rooms that reflected these fears. It's not the strictest or most clinical sense of the words to say that someone's fear of tuna fish qualifies as sitophobia, the fear of eating, but it seems to me that, having interviewed a number of people, the houses' designers may have hit on a sort of collective phobia.

A word that, for no particular reason, delighted me was "harpaxophobia", the fear of being robbed. (That's one that I can easily imagine being a crippling fear; such a thing could certainly lead to someone's becoming an urban hermit.) Where on Earth could it have come from? From the Greek, obviously--the very look of "harpax" tells us that. And it turns out that "harpax" is the Greek word for "rapacious".

In tracking that down, I got a lot of Google hits for something called "pachycondyla harpax", which is a sort of ant. "Pachy-", familiar from "pachyderm", "elephant", means "thick"--"pachydermatous" means "thick-skinned"--and the condyles are literally the knuckles but refer to any prominences at the ends of the bones, giving them their characteristic shapes. The pachycondyla harpax, therefore, is a thick-knuckled predator, which makes it sounds rather like a high-school bully.


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