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"I fear those big words which make us so unhappy."

— James Joyce, Ulysses

The first time I dealt with the topic, the phrase "fraidy-cat" was used several times. Of course I knew even fewer big words in my fraidy-cat days than I do now. If I had, I might have defended myself against my attackers by simply admitting, "I suffer from dromophobia," which is a fear of crossing streets, or even "I've long had to battle the effects of ranidaphobia," which is to say a fear of frogs.

The big difference between then and now is the advent of names. Once we could only be dismissive of someone's personal courage in very general terms, i.e., "That Claudius is such a wuss." Or if we wanted to be more specific, we had to be specific at some length, i.e., "There's no sense in taking Tristan along on the next crusade. If he has to swallow even a dollop of hummus, he'll gag for an hour."

The end of all this came at the same time and from the same cause as the death of religion, which is to say the birth of psychology. The Viennese pseudo-science freed us from the fetters of superstition by codifying those superstitions under the name of phobias. In addition, psychology created millions of respectable jobs for those simply willing to talk about these phobias, jobs with a much higher rate of return than monks or friars.

Initially, psychology limited the spread of the phobia phenomenon to fears that were commonplace: claustrophobia, the fear of closed spaces, or necrophobia, the fear of death.

But as time sped on, people in their quest for novelty began to seek new and colorful ways of becoming terrified. The phobia list began to grow at dizzying speed, and before too long, it became clear that you would need much less paper to compile a list of things that did not frighten us than a list of things that did. (This is the infamous phile list, as in anglophile, etc.)

At first the phobia list grew reasonably enough. If you had ever been freaked out by one of the face-painted clowns — and many have — you have experienced what the Bestower-of-Big-Names call coulrophobia. Surely you personally know a few folks who jump behind the settee when thunder roars through the room. This is a common enough fear to rate a big name of its own, and it has one: tonitrophobia.

But over time, the number of neuroses grew like weeds as people found more and more things of which they were afraid. Do the Northern Lights fill you with trepidation? You may be suffering from auroraphobia. Most people avoid this particular phobia by not knowing the Northern Lights if they see them. Does the devilish number 666 send chills up and down your spine? You may have the beginnings of — I kid you not — hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia. And, as a knife-and-fork guy myself, this is a special favorite of mine: consecotaleophobia. You heard me right — a fear of chopsticks.

All this overdosing was foreseen some 70-odd years ago by Robert Benchley, the famous Hollywood humorist who warned of the dangers of phobophobia: " which is the fear of having a phobia, even though you may not have one at the moment. This takes the form of the patient sitting in terror and saying to himself: "Supposing I should be afraid of food, I should starve to death!' Not a very pretty picture, you will admit."

Not only that, I will further admit to trying to use the phobia trend to my advantage. In college, I begged out of a chemistry class by claiming to be enslaved by didaskaleinophobia, which is a big word for being afraid of going to school.

In later years, college would be followed by marriage, which soon would be followed by staying out late at night. I tried to explain to my wife that I was in the clutches of ecophobia, which is a fear of home.

Recently I find myself falling prey to those fears that frequently attend the march of time. Ergo, when I close my eyes while shaving, I think that I may be surrendering to a fear of mirrors (catoptrophobia), and the Violent Femme is absolutely convinced that I am unnerved by having to undress in front of someone (dishabiliophobia).

One of the perks of being a phobiaphile is that you can hunt up your own fears and thereby invent your own big words. Nearly anyone can play; the following samples should prove it:

Taseophobia — fear of being tazed by any one of the 796,000-plus police, security, hospital attendants, parking-lot attendants and Eagle Scouts now possessing Tasers and an overwhelming desire to use them.

Interreophobia — fear of being buried alive.

Gratuitiphobia — fear of not having enough money in your pocket and/or your date's wallet to leave your server anything close to a proper tip. Your server will leave you one of those I've-seen-this-act-before looks.

Chicophobia — The woman is sitting there, waiting for what? Is that a signal? Why can't I read her signals? God, if I reach for her and she turns away She's reaching for her purse, and now reaching for her car keys. I know that signal.

So that's how you play. Give it a try. Else you may soon find yourself paralyzed by the fear of long words.

You know. Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia. Look it up if you don't believe me.


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