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Mind your language

Oxford dictionaries are talking nonsense on stilts about fear of clowns

Coulrophobia, one of its runners up for word of the year, is misformed and post-truthful

26 November 2016

9:00 AM

26 November 2016

9:00 AM

There’s something suspicious about the name for a fear of clowns which was on the shortlist of words of the year compiled by Oxford Dictionaries. This phobia, coulrophobia, oddly enough illustrates the meaning of Oxford’s eventual chosen winner: post-truth. Post-truth applies to a circumstance ‘in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion’.

Because 2016 saw an outbreak of ‘creepy-clown’ behaviour (with America swamped by people dressed as clowns lurking in the shadows, armed with samurai swords), there has been a demand for a learned word derived from Greek to designate the fear of them. It is like fear of the number 13, given the contrived name triskaidekaphobia in 1911 in an article in Abnormal Psychology by I.H. Coriat, who had interesting ideas about the use of psychoanalysis to treat stammering and homosexuality.


Anyway, the trouble with coulrophobia is that it is ill-formed. Oxford Dictionaries suggests a derivation from kolobatheron , which it says is ancient Greek for ‘stilt’. (To add to the confusion, Oxford’s press release put a diacritic over the first o to show it is long, but this came out funnily on some recipients’ computers which made even the careful Sun disseminate the word as klobatheron.) In any case, as far as I know from my trusty Liddell and Scott, the Greek for ‘stilt’ was not kolobatheron but kolobathron (κωλόβαθρον — literally ‘limb-stand’), a word used by Artemidorus Daldianus in his book on dreams, the Oneirocritica, a work that Rabelais’ Pantagruel perused by night. A stilt-walker, who is not quite a clown, was kolobathristes. In any case, this is a long way from coulro-.

Coulrophobia has apparently been in print since the 1980s. It is in my one-volume Oxford Dictionary of English (2005), with that wrong-looking eytymon kolobatheron. Coulrophobia is still not in the 20-volume edition, even online. Perhaps it would never have made it without this year’s fuss. The one clear thing is that coulrophobia is not a learned word for fear of clowns, but a clownish post-truthful word — nonsense on stilts.


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