Shashi Tharoor on phobias
Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language
It’s a pretty safe bet that there won’t be too many readers of this magazine who suffer from xerophobia — an abnormal fear of dryness and dry places, such as deserts. If you were xerophobic in the UAE, you’re in the wrong country; India in the monsoon is probably the place for you right now! Provided, of course, you don’t suffer from ochlophobia, a fear of crowds — then India surely wouldn’t suit you either.
But the very idea of xerophobia and ochlophobia is a reminder that phobias — commonly defined as excessive, intense and usually irrational fears that cause people to avoid specific situations, objects, activities or creatures — come in various shapes and sizes. Among the better-known ones are claustrophobia, a fear of closed spaces; and its opposite, agoraphobia, an aversion to wide, open spaces. But there’s also acrophobia, a fear of heights (from the same root that gives us the word ‘acrobat’ for a high-flying trapeze artist or tightrope-walker), and the condition mentioned least often but widely suffered from, triskadekaphobia (fear of the number 13), a widespread affliction of the superstitious. As a child, I lived in a building in Calcutta, as it then was, that had a 12th floor and then a 14th, for fear people would deem a 13th storey unlucky and refuse to live there.
Most common of all is xenophobia, an aversion to strangers, and a widespread affliction in the Western world these days, as well as increasingly seen, sadly, in my own country. Again, the UAE, with perhaps as many as 80 per cent of its population qualifying as expatriates from elsewhere, clearly rejects xenophobia, and what’s more, it has a Minister of Tolerance to ensure the country stays that way.
But these well-known phobias are far from exhausting the list. Less common as a word, but not as a condition, is aerophobia, the fear of flying. This is a far more widespread affliction than most people realise, and it disproportionately affects women. I was seated on a flight once next to a very pretty young actress who suffered from aerophobia and asked me to hold her hand tightly during take-off, landing, and every time the plane hit turbulence, which got me some arch looks from the stewardesses! Aerophobia reminds us that many phobias relate to fear of death and the unknown. There’s haematophobia, a fear of blood (which puts many students off biology when they first have to perform a dissection); and nyctophobia, a fear of the dark (how many children do you know who don’t suffer from nyctophobia?).
Then there are the really rare and obscure conditions for which words nonetheless exist, like ereuthophobia, the fear of blushing; emetophobia, a fear of vomiting (pity the poor emetophobe who becomes pregnant); amathophobia, an aversion to dust (in my case, this manifests itself in itchy eyes and allergic sneezes); and arachnophobia (a fear of spiders, also a surprisingly common phobia among women). Spiders are not the only creatures who generate phobias — check out ornithophobia, the fear of birds, and its cousin zoophobia, an aversion to animals in general.
Some terms are quixotic: as a Member of Parliament from Kerala, I was struck by the term keraunophobia, which sounds like an aversion to the chief minister of Kerala (the Kera Uno!), but is actually the word for a fear of thunder, which we hear a lot of in Kerala, particularly preceding pre-monsoon showers. Kerala, incidentally, is no place for anyone suffering from astraphobia, a fear of thunder and lightning.
There are words you imagine should be in more common use than they are, like pyrophobia (the fear of fire); hydrophobia, the fear of water (which is also the name of the malady you get if you develop rabies, when you become unable to drink water); and autophobia, the fear of being alone, which particularly seems to hit people as they grow older. There’s even phobophobia, the fear of fears. Go figure!
The one condition no reader of this column need ever admit to is hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia — the fear of long words. Appropriately enough, the word for this phobia is 35 letters long, but it can be broken down to be remembered. Unless, of course, the person suffering from it breaks down first!