IMG_3472The year has begun with a crop of fresh faced students who after this week’s word work hover on the brink of word nerdery! As we begin our explorations into Greek mythology what better place to begin word inquiry than with an examination of  phobias that have their roots in the language of the noble Greeks?

We covered the board in a flurry of phobias  gleaned from the brilliantly illustrated book Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears by the talented British illustrator author Emily Gravett. Students immediately recognized the word phobia as fear and deduced the words on the board were indicating specific fears. We began by analyzing the word phobia into <phob(e)+ia>. We confirmed the existence of <-ia> as a suffix as students suggested  the words: mania, media,and hysteria. We recognized that the <-ia> suffix could be substituted in <phob(e)+ia> by another suffix, <-ic> to produce the word <phob(e)+ic>.

Students were allocated a phobia to analyze into morphemes and challenged to uncover the root and its meaning. And ladies and gentlemen, they were off and fossicking in the online etymology dictionary and the O.E.D. undaunted by the fact that the entire phobia in some cases was not listed! Students used what they knew from the Greek myths we have been reading- Arachne- forever ‘woven’ into the word arachnophobia: <arachn+o+phob(e)+ia>. Students used the base element with another morphemic element, the connecting vowel letter <o>  to search for the roots and they covered the board with their enthusiastic discoveries!


We discovered that the word phobia, a noun, entered English in the late 18th century, with the sense of ‘irrational fear, horror, aversion”:  ϕοβία. The O.E.D. informed us that <-ia> was “in Greek esp. frequent as the ending of abstract nouns from adjs. in -ος, etc.’  We found also mention of phobia as a ‘word forming element’ in both Online Etymology Dictionary and the O.E.D.

The vagueness of ‘combing form’

We discussed the vagueness of the term ‘combining form’, a term sprinkled unhelpfully throughout all the best dictionaries.  The term ‘combining form’ is not particular helpful as it lacks morphological specificity.We were certain that the dictionaries we checked were referring to the coining of so many words, so many fears all attached to phobia. We too recognized the proliferation of words attached to phobia, a productive element indeed,  but rather than use the vague term ‘combining form’, we referred to these words as compound: two or more base elements in the one word. This was a surprising discovery for many students that a compound word is not simply a word with two free base elements such as whiteboard but is a word with two or more base elements which can be bound such as: <phag(e)+o+phob(e)+ia> –> phagophobia, fear of eating, or even a three base element word as one student discovered in the word kinemortophobia: <kine+mort+o+phob(e)+ia> yes, horror of horrors, fear of zombies!

Once students had listed all their words I asked them to identify features that a word is of Greek origin. To do this we considered graphemes and elements. This work is ongoing as we gather data beyond phobias!

What was discovered through this inquiry? 

  • <ph> is a digraph that represents the phoneme/f/. It always indicates that the word’s roots are Greek in origin: photograph, metamorphosis,phagophobia.
  • Connecting vowel letters are elements that link compound words. In words of Greek origin the connecting vowel letter is <o>: <hydr+o+phobe+ia>, <arachn+o+phobe+ia>, <bibli+o+phobe+ia>
  • Nouns in Greek often had an element <-os>. Is this a Greek suffix many wondered? Removing this from the etymon helped us to determine the base element. We saw xen(os), ξένος ,is the Greek root meaning stranger, guest, foreigner, refugee. ϕόβος, Greek phob(os) is fear, panic, terror; Greek  αἴλουρος, ailur(os) is cat.
  • Greek verbs have an element <-ein> as in Greek verb : kinein to move. Removing the <-ein> from the etymon helped us to confirm the base element.
  • Many of the phobia words were coined in the late nineteenth and twentieth century- the earliest word we found however, was  hydrophobia . This had derived from Greek ὑδροϕοβία :hydrophobia from hydrophobos :ὑδροϕόβος, which moved into Latin as hydrophobia then entering English initially as idroforbia in the late 14th century. In all cases it referred to a symptom of rabies. : ‘1547 A. Borde Breuiary of Helthe i. f. Cxliv, Hidroforbia..is abhorringe of water… This impediment doth come..of a melancoly humour’. This word probably became the basis for subsequent  words formed in English. We loved the discovery that the Old English counterpart of this word was :wæterfyrhtness, frightness of water!
  • We recognized that an internal <y> in a word is frequently a sign of Greek origin as in hydrophobia and cynophobia : <cyn+o+phob(e)+ia> from Greek κύων (κυν-) kyon: dog.
  • We noted that the digraph <ch> when used to represent/k/ was an indication of Greek-ness: arachnophobia, chorus, choir.
  • We discussed the term ‘hybrid’ in reference to words that draw on roots from two different languages such as claustrophobia which draws on Greek phobos and Latin claudere a root leading to many bases in English including the bound base element <claustr> here in <claustr+o+phob(e)+ia>. This word was coined by Dr. Benjamin Ball in 1879.

Below images reflecting student morphological hypotheses with their research into roots. Interesting to note who has inserted a final non syllabic <e>. This will be an important inquiry in the next few weeks. It is interesting to note that not all have come to terms with the separate morpheme- the connecting vowel <o>. This will be experienced again in further inquiries into words of Greek origin.

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While  we noted above that these words  have Greek roots, the words themselves are far more modern coinings and often via languages other than Greek. Many words appeared in English  with the rise of the new profession of psychoanalysis in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With the  appearance of these terms we see the evolution of psychiatric nomenclature. Freud, and to a lesser extent Jung, according to Hughes, (The History of English Words), sought precise scientific terminology and to do so mined the classical languages.  However, the word  pyschoanalysis coined in 1906 by Freud, was expressed first in German in 1896 then in French from a ‘Latinized form of Greek'(Online Etymology Dictionary). Classical words were ‘redefined and resuscitated’ (Hughes)  into psychoanalytical and psychiatric terms in much the same way as these words from Greek and Latin had been appropriated into the medical field. Hughes states that the ‘predilection for arcane classical vocabulary’ was the ‘natural koine of members of the intelligentsia and was also probably designed to give the discipline the status it lacked.’

And where next?

  • Further forays into the words that define phobiafear, terror and panic (read Online Etymology Dictionary here to discover the Greek mythical connections of panic)  as we journey with Odysseus admiring his courage in the face of fearsome monsters and his stalwart resolve to return home.
  • Further forays into the identification of the features of words Greek in origin.
  • And yes still to come- Tiny Tales of Fear!

What a formidable group of neophyte word nerds!