Monday, April 09, 2007


[posted by Callimachus]

Here's a news item from tonight's AP wire:

Television actor Jason Wahler hurled racial and homophobic invectives at a police officer when he was arrested over the weekend after punching a hotel security guard and passing out drunk in a hallway, a Seattle Police Department report said.

I'm not really interested in another story about a dumbass celebrity who can't handle his liquor, but I am interested in language. And the use of "-phobic" in situations like this strikes me as odd and wrong.

"Phobia" pretty clearly means "fear, horror, aversion." As a clinical condition in psychology, someone can express his horror or aversion to something (perhaps something lurking in himself) by being aggressively hostile to it.

But it seems a big reach by the AP or anyone else to say that every such insult is a mask over a fear. I would presume the sorry lush was just reaching for hurtful words to fling, and slurs against a man's sexuality are among the oldest, and still most common, weapons that come to hand in such a case. Ask any guy who's lived longer than fourth grade.

The insult to homosexuals is collateral damage, as they are not the intended target (I see no references to the cop actually being homosexual). Just as calling a guy a "pussy" in a heated argument is an insult to women, but not primarily meant as one.

[My friend Kat used to wonder why guys took that as an insult at all, since they all seemed to be so damned fond of the stuff.]

I wonder why the AP couldn't have said "hurled racial and homosexual invectives ..." since "invectives" covers the notion of insult (and note the use of "racial" instead of "racist").

Phobia is Greek, and it drifted into psychology from medicine, where it was used since classical time in compounds. Hydrophobia, the old word for "rabies," is attested in Late Latin from c.420 C.E. in the writing of Cælius Aurelianus, and from 50 C.E. in the Greek of Celsius. It literally means "dreading water," and the ailment was so called because human sufferers show aversion to water and have difficulty swallowing it.

Psychology began to pick it up in the late 19th century: agoraphobia (1873), claustrophobia (1879), acrophobia (1892), xenophobic (1912). By 1905, the formulation was common enough to be parodied, as someone did in the delightful ergophobia "fear of work."

[The Greek phobos "fear" originally meant "flight," which is still its only sense in Homer, but it became the common word for "fear" via the notion of "panic, fright."]

From there, presumably, -phobic drifted into pop psychology and thence into journalese, where it is used selectively for certain hostile or abusive behaviors without inquiry into motive. Is this Wahler fellow afraid of homosexuals? Who knows? Not the AP, I am sure. He got into a piss-drunk fracas with a cop and called him a "faggot."

He also called him the N-word -- curiously, because the cop in question is not black. Hell, I'm the whitest man you'll ever meet, and I've been called the "N-word" -- by a black panhandler berating me for blowing him off when he hit me up for a dollar outside a Subway store. Clearly it's not always about race, or fear.

Sometimes, though, such words might be used toward a known homosexual, and with a deliberate intent to wound. But, once again, I don't think "-phobic" is necessarily accurate. It implies a knowledge of underlying motives that usually can't be proved. Unless you assume that any use of such words is rooted in fear, and that involves buying into a psychological theory.

In other cases, a more accurate Greek word is brought into play: misein "to hate." You see it in misanthrope and misogyny. This would seem a better word, but I can't think of a euphonious combination of "miso-" and "homo."

The old "anti-," as in "anti-American," seems serviceable here, too.