Sunday, August 9, 2015
Word Crimes: Philias and Phobias
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.
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.