xenophobia: a deep antipathy to foreigners

ForeignersRecent political events in the the USA, Europe and elsewhere have meant that this word keeps popping into my head. It comes from two Greek words: xenos, “stranger”, and phobos “fear”.

In Greek myth, Phobos was the god of terror; a son of Mars, the god of war. His name is now attached to one of the moons of the planet Mars (the other moon is named for his brother, Deimos, “dread”).

Phobos gave his name to the suffix -phobia, meaning “fear of”, and to the word phobia, which can be variously used to designate extreme, incapacitating fears, deep antipathies or even just relatively mild aversions. if you have a phobia, you are phobic. There are a lot of phobias—I once compiled a list of named phobias, which stretches to almost three hundred, and certainly isn’t exhaustive. The rarer ones often have multiple names, apparently having been coined several times over in ignorance of existing terms—a fear of mirrors has been variously called eisoptrophobia, catoptrophobia and spectrophobia, for instance.

The commoner ones are well-known: claustrophobia, a fear of confined spaces, comes from Latin claustrum, “cloister”; agoraphobia, fear of open spaces, from Latin agora, “market-place”; acrophobia, fear of heights, from Greek akros “summit”. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo should really have been called Acrophobia, but I understand why he went for a word that just means “dizziness” instead. (Mind you, the 1990 film Arachnophobia, “fear of spiders”, did all right at the box-office.) Of the common animal fears, fear of snakes is ophidiophobia; of mice, musophobia; of cats, ailurophobia. Many children (at least, those whose fathers are unbearded) suffer from a touch of pogonophobia, a fear of beards and bearded men. A fear of dentists has been called odontophobia, but on strict etymological terms that would mean a fear of teeth, and the alternative phrase, “dental phobia”, is no better. And coulrophobia, a fear of clowns, has become something of a cultural meme, spawning novels (like Stephen King‘s It), endless movies (collected in a handy list at IMDb) and “clown panics”, like the one that recently affected France.

Coulrophobia takes us well into the territory of concocted words that see more use outside the medical profession than within it. Its origins and etymology aren’t at all clear—claims that it derives from Ancient Greek kolobathristes, “stilt-walker”, or Modern Greek klooun, “clown”, don’t really seem to fit the spelling of the word. Other -phobia words with dubious origins but better etymology include: arachibutyrophobia, a fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth; retrogenuflexophobia, a fear of the knees bending backwards; siderodromophobia, a fear of train travel; bathysiderodromophobia, a fear of subway trains; novercaphobia, fear of one’s step-mother. I apologize unreservedly to anyone who suffers an incapacitating phobic response in any of these circumstances, but they do have the feel of words that have been invented because we could invent them, rather than because we particularly needed them.

Finally, on this topic, it’s particular important to distinguish between pantophobia, “a fear of everything”, and pantaphobia, “a complete absence of fear”. Both derive from the Greek prefix panto-, meaning “all”, but the a- prefix in the second word indicates “an absence of”—aphobia, “no fear”.

The Latin word for “fear” is timor—as in the words from the old prayer, timor mortis conturbat me, “the fear of death disturbs me”, which was used repeatedly in William Dunbar‘s deeply depressing poem, Lament for the Makars. Timor gives us timorous and timid.

Going back to the first part of xenophobia, the prefix xeno- has been extensively used to indicate various things either foreign or strange: xenophilia is a love of foreigners or foreign things, while xenomania is the same thing, taken to extremes. The Xenopus toad that lingered forlornly in a tank in the corner of my biology classroom at school is a “strange foot”, because (unusually for a toad) it has claws on its rear feet. A xenotransplant or xenograft is a tissue transplanted from one species to another, like a pig heart-valve implanted in a human. Xenolalia is an ability to speak foreign languages, and xenodochy is hospitality to strangers.

The Latin equivalent of xenos was alienus, “pertaining to another person or place”. Most obviously, that gives us our words alien and alienate. Alienigenate means “foreign-born”, and alieniloquy is not, as you might expect, talking to foreigners, but means “wandering off the topic of conversation”. Alienation most commonly means a sense of estrangement, but in the past it could imply a complete removal, as in the phrase alienation of affections. So mental alienation was a loss of mental faculties, and alienists were doctors who looked after those who suffered from mental alienation—the nineteenth-century “mad-doctors” who evolved slowly into modern psychiatrists.

2 thoughts on “Xenophobia”

  1. Read a good book years ago called ,I think, “The Alienist ” set in France. Interesting to read about the start up of psychiatry

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