By: Nicola Kirkpatrick
Updated October 14, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC
Though it may come as a surprise, people can be afraid of just about anything. We are often scared by the unknown and things that don't have a name. But sometimes, when a phobia is given a name, we realize that we may have had that phobia all along. Only in naming it did we finally understand something like the phobia of long words. For instance, while there doesn't yet seem to be a name for a phobia of vowels, anecdotal evidence suggests the phobia is real, and simply has yet to be professionally identified.
It feels cruel that a fear of elongated words should be referred to by a name that is a very long word. But it is helpful to understand long words themselves: "hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia". This long fear word is used both satirically and seriously. A shorter way of referring to this long word fear is “sesquipedalophobia." This is another word commonly used to describe a fear of long words—and is far less ironic and potentially terrifying.
Let’s break the term down. "Sesqui" is Latin for "one and a half," and "pedal," also Latin, means "foot." Phobia is, of course, the Greek word for “fear." So the word "sesquipedalophobia" can be literally translated to mean "the fear of one and a half feet," or fear of a very long word. Sesquipedalophobia is in the same family of specific fears as "logophobia" and "verbophobia," as well as "onomatophobia," which is the fear of hearing a particular name or word.
Fear Of Long Words?
A comedian by the name of Bryant Oden wrote a song called "The Long Word Song," detailing a fear of really long words, or hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia. Interestingly, this is not the first time a name has been used ironically to describe a fear. There is also "dodecaphobia," which refers to a fear of the number twelve and is comprised of 12 letters. Aibohphobia, meanwhile, is the fear of palindromes. The word itself is a palindrome.
Those who experience this long words fear often feel anxious when confronted with long words. Because of the word used to describe this, the fear is often treated as a joke. But it is in fact, a very real fear, and people can fear words, or just long ones. What’s more, the long name isn’t purely ironic. Some believe that, by getting someone to say a long word every time they have to describe their fear of really long words, this may help sesquipedalophobics eventually overcome their symptoms and fear of words.
Interestingly, the word may be so long because it encourages the technique of breaking it down into smaller parts just to pronounce it. This process can help people see that they can do this with any of the long words that give them discomfort. The first section of the very long "hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia" is hippo, or "horse" in Greek. Next comes "potam-os," which means river. Surely we've all heard of a hippopotamus before. That's not such a long, scary word. "Hippopotamine" is described by the Oxford Dictionary as a word that refers to something that is very large, which makes sense for both this long word and the large animal.
Moving on, "monstr," or monster, derives from the Latin term to mean a "monstrous being," or an entity that is otherwise massive and/or frightening. "Sesquippedalio" is also derived from Latin and means something that "measures a foot and a half long." Lastly, we have “fear" from phobos, which means extreme fear of something in Greek. So basically, the word hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia, when broken down, says something that is large and terrifying. When broken up into its smaller parts, however, it's suddenly not so large. This process makes words much less frightening for those coping with a fear related to the fear of long words.
What's the Cause of Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia?
When we develop a fear, it generally surfaces as a reaction to something that the brain perceived to be dangerous or deadly. The same can be said for a fear relating to long words. If this fear of words is severe enough, the person will experience feelings of anxiety when confronted with long words. This very post may be terrifying to you right now, what with so many instances of hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia being used.
No one is born with hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia. It is a learned fear that stems from a traumatic event. Most people who have hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia had no idea when their fear started or what caused it. However, some of us may be more vulnerable to developing a fear if someone in our family experienced an extreme fear of something. A vulnerability to certain fears can be an inherited or genetic trait, though the fears themselves may differ among family members.
Interestingly, it is believed that hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia may also tie back to a person's educational background. It can be embarrassing to read words that you can't pronounce—even if they are not actually strange (or long) words. Perhaps you have this fear because you were just never exposed to a long word that is actually quite common. Maybe your school did not have long words like this in its curriculum, or perhaps your family did not typically use those kinds of long words at home. Both reasons for a lack of use can cause severe anxiety and embarrassment—particularly when everyone else seems to know the meaning and pronunciation of a long word, but you don't.
One possible reason for developing a fear of long words may trace back to a child being mocked for reading a passage in front of the class and mispronouncing long words, or an adult experiencing the same situation while giving a presentation at work. They may have reacted with sweating, shaking, and a racing heartbeat—all signs of anxiety.
Once this reaction from long words has been established, the mind then continues to perpetuate the fear at various points throughout the person's life without any reasonable explanation for doing so.
What Are The Symptoms of Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia?
As with every fear, the symptoms of hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia are different for everyone, because everyone reacts differently to fears. A person can have a physical, mental, and emotional reaction to a stimulus that they're terrified of. For instance, a person can react with severe anxiety, experiencing a panic attack from merely seeing or thinking about long words.
Insofar as physical symptoms are concerned, a person with a fear of long words might shake, cry, develop a headache, experience an accelerated heart rate or shallow breathing, and may become nauseated at the thought. They may develop dry mouth and may experience difficulty speaking, reading, or writing when experiencing this fear.
The mind can also play tricks on a person. The person will often understand that they are experiencing an irrational fear of something, but they are still unable to control or rationalize it. They may feel powerless over the grip that it has on them.
Can the Fear of Long Words Be Treated or Managed?
The worst thing about fears like a fear of long words is that you feel like you'll never feel better. A fear is a powerful fear that can root itself into your life and control every aspect of it, right down to impacting your quality of life by making you terrified even to leave your own home. The good news, though, is that every fear, even hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia can be overcome.
The first things that probably come to mind for a fear of long words are therapy and medication. However, medications should be treated as a last resort to heal fears, because they are used to suppress the symptoms of the condition. Often, it is far more efficient to tackle the fear at its source. In this case, it is anxiety. Once you confront the source of your fear, you are better-equipped to put the fear behind you once and for all. Another point about medication is that various drugs come with side effects and withdrawal symptoms. Some of these symptoms can actually be anxiety or suicidal thoughts.
Therapy should be your first step with a fear of long words, because a therapist can work with you on customizing your treatment plan. A typical treatment plan will probably go something like this: first, the person will be exposed to the word. Then, they can progress to thinking about the word, and then finally to speaking it aloud. Exposure is one of the best treatment methods there are. Exposing a person gradually to longer words can lessen the person's panic, until they are more comfortable and confident in facing longer words.
Self-help methods are also recommended in addition to therapy, and can be just as effective. Practicing deep breathing exercises, meditation, and focusing on relaxation can work wonders in reducing a person's anxiety about words. Other professional methods of therapy may include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This treatment attempts to change a person's way of thinking about their fears and to realize that it is not nearly as dangerous as the person's brain has somehow made it out to be.
If this fear is having a negative impact in your life, you should consider seeking an expert opinion from an online counselor. With the growth of online therapy, access to licensed mental health practitioners is better than ever. What’s more, psychologists increasingly see online counseling as a medium that can produce the same results as in-person treatment for a fear and more.
If you are having difficulty coping with hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia, please consider reaching out to one of our counselors at BetterHelp. BetterHelp is comprised of professionals who are specifically trained to handle fears and can assist you in creating a treatment plan that will help you get better. Fears may seem hopeless—and they are tough to beat, that much is sure—but what is just as sure is that they can be overcome, and you can get better.
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