The Fear of Everything

A wave of alterophobia is washing over Europe. Manipulated by the extreme right-wing parties who preach their own forms of inward-looking attitudes, the fear and rejection of others – which is in fact at the base of these ideas – increase as more and more migrants and refugees arrive at European borders.

We are hardly lacking words to describe hostility to those who are different or from elsewhere. Based on the model of xenophobia, more developed examples include judeophobia, islamophobia, christianophobia. There is even gynophobia, androphobia, lesbophobia and gerontophobia, which respectively describe a fear or hatred of women, men, lesbians and the elderly.

Generally used to define irrational fears, words formed with the suffixes “phobe”, “phobia” and “phobic” (from the Greek phóbos, meaning “fear”) are in fact used in many different scientific fields. Some, such as hydrophobia, describe a chemical reaction. In biology, the term halophobe (from the Greek halos, meaning “salt”), refers to an organism which cannot tolerate highly saline environments. Doctors use phonophobia to describe a patient suffering from a hypersensitivity to sound, and photophobia when the pathology relates to light. But the field of psychiatry uses the most terms to describe phobias. The best-known psychological problems include agoraphobia and claustrophobia, respectively meaning the fear of open spaces and closed spaces.

The list of fears caused by the presence or the idea of a being, an object or a situation is endless. Examples include acrophobia (feat of heights), nyctophobia (fear of the dark), pyrophobia (fear of fire), mysophobia, kenophobia, gymnophobia, brontophobia and hylophobia (the fears of contamination, voids, nudity, thunder and forests).

Nosocomophobes are scared of hospitals, chorophobes are scared of dancing, asthenophobes are scared of fainting, and emetophobes balk at the idea of vomiting,

Glossophobia is the fear of public speaking, siderodromophobia is a fear of travelling in trains, and stasophobia describes a fear of standing.

Those who hate clowns may well have coulrophobia. Those revolted by dolls suffer from pediophobia, and anyone terrified by graves and holes could be diagnosed with both taphophobia and trypophobia.

Of course we could not discuss this subject without referring to the recurring fear felt by those who write for a living or for pleasure: leucoselophobia is used to describe the famous “blank page” syndrome.

It is easy to see animals as the source of numerous fears. The most renowned are the fears of spiders (arachnophobia), snakes (ophiophobia), and mice and rats (musophobia). But there are also large numbers of ichthyophobes and chiroptophobes (those terrified of fish and bats respectively). And certain people cannot stand the sight of cats, chickens or birds, which make them ailurophobic, alektorophobic or ornithophobic.

Anyone who knows a little Greek or Latin should be able to deduct the meaning of many phobias quite easily. They would, for example, immediately understand that cuniculophobia is a fear of rabbits (from the Latin cuniculus).

Comedians have had a lot of fun embellishing the list. Their inventions include aibohphobia, which is the fear of palindromes; the word itself is a palindrome, meaning it can be read both from left to right, and vice versa, while keeping the same meaning. They are also to thank for hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia – the fear of long words, of course!

Superstitions are another field home to this lexical madness. Triskaidekaphobia is a fear of the number 13, and hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia describes a fear of the number 666.

New words of this ilk are appearing all the time, and many are truly a sign of the times. Such is the case of nomophobia, which is formed of the words “no”, “mobile” and “phobia”, and describes the fear of not having your smartphone to hand.

We are all aware that irrational fears are one of the most widespread problems affecting the human race. The only question that remains is which of the following would be hardest to bear: pantophobia (the fear of everything) or phobophobia (the fear of fear itself)?


Column published in the April 2016 issue of France-Amérique.

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