Paraskevidekatriaphobia: Big Words in English

Big words are fun, aren’t they? Of course they make you sound smart, and they might be handy in a game of Scrabble or Words With Friends, but (at least in English) they often have a specificity that is in and of itself fascinating.

The hyper-linguistic polysyllabic speech association!

If you’re an English student, I admit that precisely because of this specificity many of this words don’t exactly have “high coverage.” In other words, they’re not very useful. But they’re fun, and they can still be useful as a learning tool. Most of the words in English that you would consider “big” aren’t just random collections of letters; rather, they’re collections of different smaller words or word pieces (bases and affixes). The strategy you use to learn about or understand a word like paraskevidekatriaphobia can be applied to shorter, less complex words you might actually encounter in your life or in your studies.

So, in honor of paraskevidekatriaphobia, I’m going to spend every Friday the 13th looking at bigwords! Starting, of course, with paraskevidekatriaphobia.

Now, let’s assume that you didn’t already know that it means “fear of Friday the 13th.” Could you figure it out?

The first and biggest clue is in the last little word piece (or morpheme, if you want to be technical): phobia. Fear. If you know that, then you know that a phobia is a fear of something. You might have seen arachnophobia (fear of spiders) or claustrophobia (fear of small spaces) before, as those seem to be fairly common fears. There’s a whole list of different phobias, in fact, if you feel like whiling away an afternoon.

If you know that “phobia” comes to English, via Latin, from the Greek word for fear (phobos), you might think to look at the rest of the word through a Greek lens: paraskevidekatria-. As it turns out, this would be the right way to go. Paraskevi is Greek for Friday, and dekatreis refers to the number 13. While “paraskevi” might be somewhat obscure, at least for those who don’t speak Greek*, in “dekatreis” one can see connections to other common roots: decem and decim for “ten,” and tri for “three.”

So, do you suffer from paraskevidekatriaphobia? Or how about somniphobia? Nyctophobia? When I was a child, I had a pretty bad case of agyrophobia: fear of streets. (Don’t worry. I got better!)

A final point on phobias: since the word has crystallized into the language both as “fear” and “aversion” (see, for example, homophobia and Islamophobia to refer to attitudes that aren’t the traditional irrational fear of a phobia, but rather a cultural and/or personal revulsion), English has taken a tendency to take words from other languages and stick them on the end. Not just with phobia, either; there is a tendency to mix different languages. But that’s what makes English so fascinating!

*While writing up this blog post, I wondered if the para- in “paraskevi” might have the same root as pent (five), as in the fifth day of the week (much like the Russian names for the weekdays), but this turned out not to be the case. The word is related to the Greek word “to prepare” and apparently is named after Friday preparations for the Sabbath.

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