Brill’s Language & Linguistics Blog

Fear of Friday the 13th and other phobias

The superstition that Friday the 13th brings bad luck is so widespread in Western countries that the English language has not one, but two words for ‘fear of Friday the 13th’. Now I say “English language”, but the words in question look as un-English as they come:

paraskavedekatriaphobia: a compound made up of borrowings < Greek παρασκευή ‘Friday’ + δεκατρείς ‘thirteen’ + ϕοβία ‘fear’;

friggatriskaidekaphobia < Frigg (the Norse Goddess whom Friday is named after) + triskaidekaphobia (< τρεῖσκαιδεκα, another way to express ‘thirteen’ in Greek + ϕοβία ‘fear’).

While it seems very practical to be able to express this concept with a single word, I don’t really think these terms are going to catch on soon… (I think being able to pronounce them is a crucial first step requiring more time and effort than most people – including myself – are willing to put in). However, I do appreciate this type of morphological creativity which also spawned hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia, ‘fear of the number 666’.

The possibilities of stringing together Ancient Greek borrowings seem endless but the question is how many of these fantastic creations actually make it into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). A quick search for *phobia results in 128 dictionary entries, including one for the suffix –phobia which they say was borrowed from Greek via Latin: “post-classical Latin -phobia (in e.g. hydrophobia ‘fear of water’) < Hellenistic Greek ϕοβία”.

The list includes some familiar, widely-used items such as claustrophobia (fear of confined places) and arachnophobia (fear of spiders), the latter of which reminds me of the 90s horror film of the same name, and leaves me wondering if usage of the term increased after millions of movie-goers had been exposed to (and possibly traumatized by) a plague of giant spiders.

Other –phobia entries in the OED are more obscure, and their meanings are often opaque at first sight due to the fact that the compounds are entirely made up of Latin or Greek elements, like ergophobia, ‘fear of work’ (from Greek ἔργον ‘work’). A particular one that catches my eye is ailurophobia, ‘intense fear of or aversion to cats’, simply because I am a big fan of cats (this is the understatement of the year; I know 2017 has only just begun, but this is it).

One of the first attestations of ailurophobia given in the OED is quite hilarious, though:

1905   A. Lang in Morning Post 16 June 4/3   Finding a lady, rather ailurophobic, in a low dress at dinner Tippoo suddenly leaped up and alighted on her neck. He was never so friendly with non-ailurophobes.

(Yes, they do that!)

I am relieved to find some –phobia compounds that I can immediately understand because they combine with English nouns: computer phobia, commitment phobia (note the space between the words) and germophobia (with a connective –o-).

Going through the OED I notice that the words that started this quest, paraskavedekatriaphobia and friggatriskaidekaphobia, are not listed at all, and that they are probably not the only missing –phobias. My suspicion is confirmed when I stumble on a little gem called The Phobia List which contains hundreds of –phobias that I have never even heard of, including weirdly specific ones, like pteronophobia, ‘fear of being tickled by feathers’ and arachibutyrophobia, ‘fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth’.

Some phobias actually make a lot of sense when you think about it, such as albuminurophobia, ‘fear of kidney disease’ or rhabdophobia, ‘fear of being severely punished or beaten by a rod, or of being severely criticized’. Others seem to be a bit random: consecotaleophobia, ‘fear of chopsticks’, oenophobia, ‘fear of wines’ and siderodromophobia, ‘fear of railways or railway travel’ (although the latter must be a relatively common condition since it is listed in the OED!).

On a more personal note, I’m glad that this quest has taught me a term to explain why I have trouble getting out of bed in the morning (psychrophobia), and I think that my mother will be happy when I tell her that she is not the only person in the world suffering from ranidaphobia.

Eline van der Veken
Editor-in-chief of Brill’s Linguistic Bibliography

References:

Friday the 13th: https://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/world/friday-13

Oxford English Dictionary: http://www.oed.com/

The Phobia List: http://phobialist.com/

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