Shashi Tharoor’s Word of the Week: Phobia
PHOBIA, noun: an extreme dislike or irrational fear of, or aversion to, something, whether a place, a situation or an animal.
USAGE: She can never get into a crowded lift because she suffers from claustrophobia.
Also: He lives alone in the mountains because he has a phobia about crowds and freaks out with a bad case of ochlophobia every time he comes into the city.
Phobias come in various shapes and sizes. The better-known ones include claustrophobia, a fear of closed spaces; and its opposite, agoraphobia, an aversion to wide, open spaces. There’s acrophobia, a fear of heights (from the same root that gives us the word ‘acrobat’ for a high-flying trapeze artist or tightrope-walker), arachnophobia (a fear of spiders, a surprisingly common phobia among women) and the condition mentioned in our second usage example, ochlophobia, a fear of crowds. 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 BJP-ruled India.
Less common as words, but not as conditions, is aerophobia, a fear of flying (I was seated next to a very pretty actress on a flight once who suffered from aerophobia and asked me to hold her hand tightly during takeoff, landing and every time the plane hit turbulence, which got me some arch looks from fellow passengers!); amathophobia, an aversion to dust (I am a mild sufferer from this condition myself); 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); ornithophobia, the fear of birds, and its cousin zoophobia, an aversion to animals.
There are words you imagine should be in more common use than they are, like pyrophobia (the fear of fire) and triskadekaphobia (fear of the number 13), a widespread affliction of the superstitious. As a child I lived in a building in Kolkata that had a 12th floor and then a 14th, for fear people would deem a 13th storey unlucky and refuse to live there.
Some terms are quixotic: keraunophobia 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. The one condition no male of my acquaintance has ever admitted to is genophobia – a fear of sex. I should stop here: this long but still-partial list is enough to give many readers a phobia about phobias!