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Do you have hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia?

From arachnophobia: fear of spiders to Panophobia: fear of everything.

Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia means a fear of long words. I can cope with sesquipedalian, which means containing long words, because I can see that it’s from the Latin for a foot and a half; but how “hippo” got into the former word I have no idea.

Phobias are many and with splendid names. How about hierophobia: a fear of priests and sacred things? Awkward for a Catholic, but perhaps St Peter will accept it as an excuse. Not much hope, though, for those with papaphobia, which is fear of popes. Some readers might favour my invented johnpaultwophobia, and others francisophobia.

I do not suffer from caligynephobia, which is a fear of beautiful women; I only have caligynephilia – which causes me in company immediately to approach the most beautiful woman I can see. Not my fault: it’s a condition.

Many people have kopophobia, which is fear of fatigue. Worrying about being tired the next day keeps them awake at night. And we mustn’t forget phobophobia, which is a fear of having phobias. Or panophobia, which is a fear of everything. There is a real danger of this, given the dire picture presented to us by the morning newspapers. Perhaps we now need Brexitophobia.

But we must not treat phobias too lightly. I have a young relative with trypanophobia, or a fear of injections. This can be so serious that it can cause someone threatened with an injection to go into anaphylactic shock. Bad news, given the number of preventive injections the young have available to them nowadays. And many other phobic conditions can cause both distress and disadvantage.

Most phobias seem to be learned conditions, although some of the classic ones are connected with basic fears such as heights or spiders (acrophobia and arachnophobia). It may be that we have tendencies hardwired into the primitive part of the brain, set there by evolution as a protection against dangers in our early environment. And they tend to be self-reinforcing. For example, ailurophobia (fear of cats) may have started with a now forgotten bad experience. But every time sufferers avoid a cat they feel a sense of relief, which acts as a little reward, ensuring that their phobia continues or even gets worse.

And fortunately a remedy lies therein. What has been learned can be unlearned. Behavioural therapists have had much success in training phobic people, through a process of gradual habituation, to rid themselves of their problem. Everyone with a disabling phobia should at least give this route a try. It can transform a life.

But I think I shall continue to live with my osteoichthyophobia (which does not appear in the standard list so I have had to neologise). It means fear of fish bones. It was a considerable nuisance on the days of Friday abstinence and, throughout my career, I chose to work from home on Fridays. My wife became so skilled at removing fish bones that I felt safe. If she had a trace of suzugosophobia (fear of husbands) she concealed it.

Of course you may see all of this as an example of floccinaucinihilipilification, and perhaps rightly so. Nevertheless, obscure words do have their value. When I did a good deal of speaking to professional audiences I always tried to get in at least one word which the audience would feel they should have understood, but didn’t.
I felt it gave me an advantage. I picked up the idea from a junior colleague of mine who had to address a senior audience.
At an early stage he used such a word, and it was easy to see how the paternalistic audience responded by their increased attention to his message.

But I also remember a Washington official using the word “niggardly” in reference to a budget. He was accused of racism and tendered his resignation.

Yet it’s not only what you say, it may be how you say it. Professor John Honey in his Does Accent Matter? (Faber and Faber, 1989) reported several studies demonstrating that “received pronunciation” – that is, the then accent of the orthodox BBC newsreader, and shared by about three per cent of the population – carried the highest prestige. The owner is rated as more intelligent, competent and having higher leadership qualities than those with other accents; among women, the owner is also rated more highly in strength, initiative and femininity.

Perhaps the outstanding example was Mrs Thatcher, whose imitation of received pronunciation was masterly despite her bourgeois background. The late Lady Warnock referred to it as “odious, suburban gentility”. Only natural received pronunciation speakers can detect the difference and they, as I have said, only represent a fraction of the population. But Honey wrote his book 30 years ago; it may all be different now.

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