Sunday, August 9, 2015

Word Crimes: Philias and Phobias

 Snake stories tomorrow.  For now, here are the prompts: my son's index finger provides a warm perch for a Ringneck Snake (above).  This is a full-sized adult.  His neck (below) provides a warm place for a mid-sized Gopher Snake.  These images and that of the large beetle in my previous post will be a part of my story about philias and phobias in our relationship with Mother Nature.

8/12/15  I've had a few days to think more about this theme.  I'm thinking about inventing a new field of study which I'll call forensic etymology.  Now read that carefully; there is already a field known as forensic entomology.  On more than one occasion I've complained in this blog that while the word "arachnophobia" is found in most dictionaries, "arachnophilia" is not.   In fact, as I type, the latter word is underlined in red, as in "red alert, not a word, not w word...."

On the topic of snakes, I am reminded by several overheard conversations how widespread is the condition known as "herpetophobia."  That can mean "fear of and/or hatred of reptiles and amphibians.  The prefix "herp-" goes back to a time when reptiles and amphibians were considered to belong to the same large category.  Thus, a herpetologist might study snakes, lizards, turtles, crocodilians (reptiles) and/or frogs, toads, salamanders, caecelians (amphibians).  Thus, fear and/or hatred of any or all of these animal categories might be called herpetophobia.

But my interest, currently, is more focused on snakes.  A more specific term, ophidiophobia, refers to a fear and/or hatred of snakes.  I say "fear and/or hatred" but we all know those two reactions tend to go hand in hand.  Interestingly, ophidiophobia is not considered a mental illness, but ophidiophilia is.  It is variously defined as "a sexual attraction" or an "abnormal attraction" to snakes, and is considered a mental illness.  I guess that makes ophidiophobia normal.  By extension, the young man in the above photos must be abnormal, at least with respect to his interest in snakes.  Well, it's my fault.

I have wondered ever since graduate school whether a fear of snakes was mostly or entirely culturally induced (which I believe it to be) or largely, or entirely, hereditary.  My great college herpetology and ecology professor Archie Carr believed it was hereditary.  According to Dr. Carr, the evidence was largely anecdotal, yet very compelling.  He observed that in many cultures, such as Eskimos, that live in places where they have never seen snakes, people react with fear and/or disgust at pictures of them.  Dr. Carr believed the fear could have become incorporated into our genetic make-up during the earliest stages of Homo sapiens when our species evolved in Africa in an environment where a healthy regard for the many poisonous snakes was a matter of survival.  Then, as our species fanned out  over the globe, that gene persisted even in places where it was no longer relevant to survival. A vestigial behavior, much like our appendix is a vestigial organ.
One of my interests, when it comes to child rearing and teaching is to help prevent the development of irrational fears and/or hatreds of any wild animals.  Respect for intact ecosystems is long overdue.  Our survival as a species will probably depend on that.  If you look back at the top photo of an adult Ringneck Snake wrapped around my son's index finger, it should not scare you.  First of all, snakes are not slimy.  Smooth, yes, but not slimy.  This one is so tiny, it couldn't deliver a painful bite if it wanted to.  In fact, this eater of worms and tiny bugs has never even opened its mouth on me and I've handled hundreds.  Anyway, this introduction to a small, friendly snake is step one.  If followed by further exposure to other snakes, lizards, turtles, harmless bugs, etc., etc., will usually lead to a strong liking for wild things, maybe even the urge to keep them as pets.  In fact, keeping snakes and other reptiles as pets is quite common.  Many a future zoologist starts this way.  That is NOT a pathology!

So, how did ophidiophilia come to mean a pathological sexual attraction to snakes?  I figure it's a "word crime," stemming from an over-reaction by people with ophidiophobia.  As an amateur forensic etymologist, I plan to look into this further.

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