This week on our YouTube channel, we looked at a group of terms that crop up fairly often on lists of bizarre words: phobias.
The word phobia itself has its roots in phobos, an Ancient Greek word meaning “fear”, “panic”, or “flight”. The Greeks certainly knew a thing or two about irrational fears and anxieties—and we have the great physician Hippocrates to thank for some of their earliest descriptions.
In his Epidemics, Hippocrates recorded how one of his patients was a man who “through bashfulness, suspicion and timorousness will not be seen abroad, loves darkness as life, and cannot endure the light”. Another “dared not come into company for fear he ... [would] be sick”. A patient named Democles was terrified of heights and bridges, and “could not go near a precipice”, while one of his friends, Nicanor, was so “beset with terror” at the sound of a flute being played that he would become ill whenever he heard it. (And as fears go, you really can’t get much more irrational than the fear of flute music.)
Nowadays, we have a robust vocabulary of words to describe the likes of Hippocrates’ patients, who would be labelled with terms like agoraphobia (fear of crowds), emetophobia (fear of vomiting), gephyrophobia (fear of crossing bridges), and—well, flutophobia. But despite having both their linguistic and (thanks to Hippocrates) medical roots in Ancient Greece, the Greeks themselves didn’t have all too many words for individual phobias. We have records of terms like psychrophobia (the fear of cold water) and aerophobia (the fear of air) being used in Greek literature, but the fact is that the vast majority of phobia names didn’t emerge in the language until much later.
In fact, it wasn’t until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the vocabulary of phobias finally began to be fleshed out, spurred on by advances in psychology, psychiatry, and the treatment of mental illness. Agoraphobia, for instance, was first described in 1871. Claustrophobia dates from in 1879, acrophobia from 1888. Sigmund Freud pushed things further with discussions of irrational fears in the early 1900s (sex and parenthood were to blame, he claimed, entirely out of character). And the language of phobias has continued to expand ever since, with the likes of triskaidekaphobia (1911), arachnophobia (1925) and mycophobia (fear of eating mushrooms, 1957) added in the years that followed.
But one of the earliest of all phobias coined in English wasn’t a psychiatric one, but a cultural one. And it just so happens that it was coined at an extraordinarily testing time in global history, by one of history’s greatest figures:
By the late 1700s, the American Revolution was over, while the French Revolution had just begun. France had been America’s ally during the Revolutionary War, whereas Britain had been a common enemy to both. And with France thrown into an even more bloody and anarchic period than that which America had just endured, anti-French feeling and a staunch defence of king and country spread like wildfire across Britain. Quite literally, in fact, as things became so tense in the early 1790s that effigies of the radical writer (and supporter of the Revolutionary cause) Thomas Paine were reportedly burnt all across England.
Back in America, the capture of a British ship by French in Philadelphia in 1793 was met with “peals of exultation” among the anti-British crowds on the banks of the Delaware river. George Washington and his recently-appointed Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, however, were less enthused. They agreed that during these difficult times America was best off remaining neutral, giving the country the best opportunity to maintain trade with both parties—but not everyone was convinced. “We are going on here in the same spirit,” Jefferson wrote of in-house meetings in a letter on 12 May, but added, “the Anglophobia has seized violently on three members of our council. This sets almost every day on questions of neutrality.”
Oddly, later in the same letter Jefferson stopped short of coining the term Francophobia to describe an opposing hatred of the French, and instead opted for the more verbose “Anti-gallomany”. Regardless of the oversight however, Jefferson’s place in phobia-coining history was assured.