From philophobia to atelophobia: How many of these words do you understand?

Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 3 Nov 2022, 4:32 PM

A couple of months ago, I shared the story of a college professor whose brightest student convinced herself that she was in love with her teacher and proceeded to write him a series of notes which, despite himself, he found intriguing, thanks to her choice of esoteric vocabulary to express her feelings.

The column ended with the Professor wisely telling her that “there is no point participating in an anecdoche”— a conversation in which everyone is talking, but nobody is listening. However, the matter did not end there. After a few days, the ensorcelled student responded:

“An anecdoche it may feel for you but not for me, for in my view tazenda rarely works. If it did, I would have skipped, not slipped, clues and cues to you through my messages, sitting on the first bench in the class, to overcome your callosity.” Now the Professor knew (because he had employed the term in the earlier exchange) that “tazenda” referred to “things better left unsaid; matters to be passed on in silence”. And “callosity”, like “callousness”, referred to the quality or state of being callous, usually marked by abnormal hardness and a lack of feeling or capacity for emotion. She was accusing him of being callous to her feelings by instructing her not to express them.

So far so comprehensible. But then the student went on: “You must concede that you are deeply afflicted by philophobia with symptoms of atelophobia. I do feel like a shlimazel, I confess, as I wait for you to change your mind, with a feeling of desiderium that clings to the inner recesses of my soul. For instead of assuaging my thantophobia, you succumb to your own drapetomania.”

Defeated, the weary but curious professor turned to his dictionary. He didn’t need to look up “philophobia”: he knew that meant the fear of love, since “philo” always refers to the love of something (thus “philosophy” is the love of knowledge) and “phobia” the fear of something (we have devoted an entire column on this page to phobias previously). But “atelophobia” was a new one to him. He discovered that it meant “an obsessive fear of imperfection”. Someone with this condition is usually terrified of making mistakes. So that was what the student thought his problem was!

But why did she feel like a “shlimazel”? The word came from Yiddish and had entered the English language thanks to its use by American Jews. A shlimazel was a consistently unlucky person, afflicted by bad luck and misfortune. The professor began to feel bad for the girl. And her feeling of desiderium? That meant she was experiencing an ardent desire or longing, especially a feeling of grief for something lost. The professor began to feel distinctly uncomfortable.

She had wanted him to assuage her thantophobia: that meant she was suffering either fear of death (more commonly spelled thanatophobia), or the fear of losing someone she loved. But that was surely not his fault — it was her emotions that were inappropriate! And what was this “drapetomania” she was accusing him of? He turned online: it meant “an overwhelming urge to run away”. Yes, he conceded, in the face of her relentless linguistic onslaught, running away was indeed what he felt he needed to do.

He decided not to respond. But his silence did not end the conversation. Sure enough, an email came into his inbox a week later: “my dear elusive professor, as you desperately weasel out of your gerascophobia, I must remain an eccedentesiast. For at the end of this clandestine correspondence, either you will end up with athazagoraphobia or I shall relinquish my anuptaphobia.”

He was offended to be accused of “gerascophobia”: he had no fear of ageing. But he felt amused that she called herself an eccedentesiast, one who fakes a smile. And she was saying that either he would end up forgetting her or she would give up her own fear of remaining unmarried or being married to the wrong person.

Suppressing a smile, he replied sternly: “I have no time for such leucocholy!” That meant a preoccupation with trivial and insipid diversions. It was rude, but this time he hoped that she would get the message.

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