“The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself!” Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke those words in order to perk up the peeps during the depths of the depression.
It’s a great line, but it’s not true. People have phobias. Lots of them, as it turns out. Last week’s Word Odyssey column was devoted to English words from Greek myths, including phobia from the god of fearsome dreams. While researching the word, I found out that there are phobias of just about everything.
Like a lot of medical and psychological terms, phobia is from Greek, in which it meant fear. But medically speaking, a phobia is not a mere fear, it’s an irrational aversion to something, to the point where the fear is pathological. In other words, it’s a mental disease. So, while many of us find spiders a bit scary, an arachnophobe might panic in the presence of a spider, or even when he or she suspects a spider might be present. The same is true of an ophidiophobe, who has a pathological fear of snakes. If cats cause you severe anxiety, you might have ailurophobia.
And of course, there is claustrophobia, going bonkers in tight, enclosed spaces. Agoraphobia is the fear of open spaces or, really, just being around people in public. In Greek, an agora was a marketplace, so the word is fitting for this particular phobia of people who won’t leave the house. Opposite of that, an autophobe is afraid of being alone. Now, don’t confuse agoraphobia with acrophobia, which is a fear of heights, with the “acro” being derived from the Greek word for highest point—think of the Acropolis, or of an acrobat up on the high wire, who you might say has acrophilia, a love of heights.
I’ve just begun to scratch the surface of phobias. There are some really cool ones. Like agyrophbia, the fear of crossing roads. And how about barophobia, the fear of gravity. How in the hell can you dread gravity!? That’s like fearing earth or air, it’s just unavoidable! And just so you know, I’m not making this up. Search barophobia and you’ll hit a dozen sites that tout a cure for it. This next one I get: coulrophobia, an abnormal fear of clowns. They’ve always scared me, although I haven’t gone so far as to join Ihateclowns.com. Another phobia might be related: a pediophobe has an abnormal fear of dolls, which would explain the success of the Chucky movies. Research does not disclose any phobia for an abnormal fear of action figures.
If you’re afraid of going into the shower room at the pool, you might just have gymnophobia, a fear of naked bodies. If you freak out when you can’t find your smart phone or are outside cell service, you could have nomophobia, with the “nomo” being a contraction of “no mobile.” See if you can guess what this next phobia is: hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia. (Hint: in Greek, “hex” means the number six, as in hexagon). Yes, it’s an abnormal fear of the number 6-6-6, which in the Book of Revelations is the Sign of the Beast. Some people had such an aversion to U.S. Highway 666, which ran through Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada, and was known as the Devil’s Highway, that it was renumbered.
In the town where I live, there are an abnormally high number of people with the following phobias. Ablutophobia is the fear of bathing, washing or cleaning. Ergophobia is an aversion to working. A technophobe fears technology, also known as a Luddite.
By definition, people who live in fear of having a phobia (a fear of fear itself?) are phobophobes. Naturally, there are some people who are afraid of everything, which is panphobia. An episode of Star Trek gave us nihilphobia, which is fear of a void in space, or nothingness. But as far as I can tell, there is no name for a fear of nothing, yet that would seem like the scariest psychosis of them all.
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