Friday, June 13, 2014

Etymological Investigations: Friday the 13th, Fears and Phobias

For some, the 13th day of the month occurring on a Friday strikes fear into their hearts. We thought today we'd look at the language of fears, phobias, and superstition. It should be noted, however, that the superstition of Friday the 13th is not a global phenomenon. In Spain, Tuesday the 13th is the unlucky day , while Italians consider Friday the 17th to be unlucky.

The day is undoubtedly the most feared day of the year in English-speaking cultures and studies have even be shown to prove this. However, as I believe superstition to be nonsense (until England play their World Cup matches), we're going to look at the language behind fears and phobias.

Phobia is obviously the best place to start, and this word comes from the Greek phobos, much like the moon. Though it originally referred to "flight" in Homer, it later evolved to refer to fear, panic, and terror. As a suffix, -phobia arrived in the English language from the French language, which had taken the suffix from Greek.

As the suffix is originally Greek and the English have a love-hate relationship with the French, phobias have generally followed a Greek naming convention. The following are some of the most common phobias and their origins.

We wouldn't be so cruel as to put a picture of an actual spider!
Arachnophobia

Despite the Greek naming conventions, the most common phobia in the world, arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, comes from the French word arachnide coupled with the Greek -phobia suffix. However, this is because the term was coined by a French biologist and he clearly didn't want to play by English rules.

Ophidiophobia

The term ophidio is thought to have come from the Modern Latin term ophidia, which is technically a Latin neologism that was created just so taxonomists could name snakes in Latin following the naming convention they had decided upon. However, the term has its roots in the Greek term for snake, ophis. If you haven't guessed yet, it's the term for the fear of snakes.

Acrophobia

The term acrophobia is the correct term for an irrational fear of heights, though it is likely that the idea of falling is more terrifying than the actual altitude. The Greek term akros, meaning "at the top" or "at the end" was used in conjunction with -phobia by Italian Dr. Andrea Verga to describe the condition that he himself suffered from. This phobia is often wrongly referred to as vertigo, which actually refers to dizziness and is a Latin term which comes from the verb vertere, meaning "to turn".

Agoraphobia

The fear of open spaces and difficult-to-escape situations comes from the Greek term agora, which, unsurprisingly, means "open spaces". Simple.

Cynophobia

The term cyno in this phobia has its origins in the Greek term kynos, meaning canine. Despite the prevalence of dog ownership in a number of countries, cynophobia is still one of the most common fears.

Astraphobia

While this prefix comes from the Latin term for the stars, another common name for the condition is brontophobia, from the Greek term bronte, meaning thunder. That's right, astraphobia is a fear of thunder and lightning.

Trypanophobia

The term for a fear of injections is unlikely to ease anyone's worries once they know the origins of the word. The Greek term trypano refers to a "borer", someone or something that pierces or bores into something. Sounds like a perfectly rational thing to fear.

The launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia,
which disintegrated during reentry.
Pteromerhanophobia

The biggest burden pteromerhanophobes about to embark on long distance flights face isn't the risk of delays, it's the fear of flying. The ptero part of the fear is the Greek term for feather and pteron refers to a wing. The terms aerophobia and aviatophobia are both used as well, referring to aero (air) and Latin avis (bird). Some believe that this fear is caused by a multitude of fears, such as claustrophobia, the fear of enclosed spaces, acrophobia, and agoraphobia, as it is difficult to escape from a plane in flight.

Mysophobia

Mysophobia is the fear of dirt, germs, and uncleanliness. Myso means "uncleanliness" in Greek and rounds out our most common phobias.

Xenoglossophobia

While not one of the most common phobias, we felt this one deserved a special mention. If you are aware of xenophobia, then you should know that xeno- comes from the Greek for "foreign". The glosso part is also Greek, meaning "tongue". Xenoglossophobia is the fear of foreign languages, which we certainly don't suffer from.

Do you have any interesting irrational fears or know anyone who does? Tell us about them and their etymology in the comments below.