The agony of homophobia

A Harry Bliss cartoon from the November 14th New Yorker:


Four things, related in complex ways. One, the (very common) deflection of physical symptoms to psychological states (“You have knots in your lower back” > “You have lots of anxiety in your lower back”), here carried to an absurd degree of specificity, with knots or musculuar tension being attributed to homophobia.

Two, the physical intimacy of massage, here between two men.

Three, the formal composition of the drawing, with the masseur at right angles to his client and all those vertcal lines, broken by the angled branch on the scroll, which connects the bodies of the two men.

Four, the word homophobia, to which some have objected, on the grounds that it’s contrary to etymology: –phobia from the Greek ‘fear’ root, but homophobes, it is claimed, are not so much fearful of homosexuality as averse to it.

The suggestion is that the physical closeness of the massage (which is reinforced for the viewer by the visual elements joining the men) triggers some anxiety in the client over the relationship, distresses him about possible homosexual content in the situation, and leads to muscular tension that the masseur can feel in his hands.

Meanwhile, both men are hunky high-masculinity types (with muscular hairy forearms and short haircuts). All in all, the cartoon gives off a gay sensibility without being actually sexual.

The artist. The amiable New Yorker cartoonist Harry Bliss has his own Page on this blog; a 12/11/12 posting has some basic biographical information. Notable in all of this are his many children’s books and his affection for dogs,

Homophobia. From a 11/28/12 blog posting “Homophobia, Homomisia, and the Associated Press: Why Lingo Counts” by Robert Epstein:

The recent move by the Associated Press [see below] to ban the use of the word “homophobia” by its reporters is smart, long overdue, and indicative of media and cultural trends.

The term “homophobia,” introduced by psychologist George Weinberg in 1972, is an unfortunate euphemism. People with strong reservations about homosexuality don’t fear gays (a phobia is an irrational fear); rather, they often have an aversion to them. And that’s a euphemism too. Many people actually hate gays and even the very idea of homosexuality.

… In an article I published in 2003 in Psychology Today magazine when I was editor-in-chief there, I suggested that the Greek root misos, which means hatred or aversion, was the way to go.  That gives us homomisia for the noun and homomisic for the adjective.

Added to the AP Stylebook on 11/11/12 (and not altered since then):

phobia An irrational, uncontrollable fear, often a form of mental illness. Examples: acrophobia, a fear of heights, and claustrophobia, a fear of being in small, enclosed spaces. Do not use in political or social contexts: homophobia, Islamophobia. [presumably xenophobia is banned as well]

Together these sources depend on evergreen ideas that have come to be known under the heading of the etymological fallacy. In one relatively benign (earnestly Romantic, antiquity-worshiping) variant, the EF merely says that the “true meaning” of a word or other expression is to be found in its etymology, its historical source. In principle, that would be compatible with the fact that the uses of so many expressions — tens, or even hundreds, of thousands — no longer directly reflect such “true meanings”.  In principle, we could recognize that the Latin pat-/pass– root meaning ‘suffer’ lies behind modern English passion in all of its uses (including ‘something arousing enthusiasm’), patient in all of its uses (including a doctor’s patient), and passive in all of its uses (including the passive voice in morphosyntax and a passive partner in a business deal) — while conceding that actual suffering is no longer any part of the semantic package for most of these uses.

But proponents of the EF rarely stop there, insisting instead on what I’ll call etymological absolutism: the etymology of an expression provides the only meaning fot it: this is the meaning it must have; all other uses are simply wrong. Etymological absolutism is utter lunacy, but it’s astonishingly popular — at least when applied to a handful of examples some people loathe passionately (oh, how they must suffer!), of which homophobia is one. (Some earlier discussion on this blog: on 8/10/12 “Hate” and on 2/5/16 “homophobia”.)

I hope to do a riff on etymological absolutism in another posting, but here I’ll stick to homophobia. The case is complex: early creations have the formative –phobia, borrowed from Greek in technical (mostly medical) contexts to refer to various species of extreme or irrational fear (I myself suffer from acrophobia, one of the most common of these afflictions), but in the late 18th century the element was pulled out to become a noun on its own. Epstein above (considered as one exemplar of many trumpeting etymological absolutism in this semantic domain) is looking at the compound homophobia, while the AP advice is looking at the compound in the light of the word phobia.

Fact 1: homophobia is widely used now, and has been for decades, for a range of negative attitudes towards homosexuality or homosexuals or both: not just fear, but also hatred, horror, aversion, dislike, distaste, disapproval, and opposition. OED2 has 1969 as its first cite, with other cites through 1988, and it doesn’t attempt to disentangle ‘fear’ and ‘hatred’, nor is it easy to discern exactly which negative emotion or emotions the authors of the examples had in mind. We don’t have alternative formatives to express these shades of meaning, so of course what people did (very quickly, it seems) was extend the sense of homophobia to cover these other negative attitudes.

Such semantic extensions are everywhere. When the term quarantine came into English, it referred to an isolation period of exactly 40 days (see my 10/19/14 posting); that’s in the etymology. But of course people had reason to refer to various lengths of isolation periods to contain disease, so quarantine was extended to cover them all. (Isolation period is long and clunky and, more important, insufficiently specific as to the purpose of the isolation.)

There is (now) absolutely nothing wrong with talking about a 21-day quarantine, and if anyone tells you otherwise, you’re entitled to laugh at them.

Fact 2. The noun phobia‘s principal use continues to be for an extreme or irrational fear.

Consequence. It then seems to be that:

(1) Homophobia is not a phobia.

If you’re an etymological absolutist, (1) is a straightforward contradiction. But a moment’s reflection should convince a sane person that the contradiction is only apparent.

The subject of (1) is a compound, X + Y, so (1) is of the form

(2) (a) X + Y is not (a) Y

But (2) is a really common pattern. Though it’s often thought that compounds should, or must, be subsective — (a) X + Y is (a) Y — vast numbers of them are non-subsective, usually because they’re what I’ve called resembloid compounds: (a) X + Y is like (a) Y. A tiny sampling of the vast world of non-subsective compounds in English:

(3a) food porn, book porn, house porn, and real estate porn are not porn

(3b) deal whores, attention whores, and media whores are not whores

(3c) a rockrose is not a rose, a daylily is not a lily, a California lilac is not a lilac

(3d) mantis shrimp and rock shrimp are not shrimp

(3e) X + Y, where Y is a food name, but X + Y isn’t Y: head cheese, cock/dick cheese, toe jam, apple butter, peanut butter, face cream, coconut milk, nut meat

(These are from snowclonelets — X porn and X whore — and plant, animal, and food names, but there are many types. )

All (1) says is that homophobia is non-subsective. No big deal.

Vocabulary of hate. Looking for a word to cover hatred and a variety of other emotions or attitudes not necessarily driven by fear (though some or all of fear, hatred, horror, and aversion often occur together in an emotional package), people have seized on an available fear word and extended it metonymically to cover a larger emotional package.

It’s truly annoying that the AP Stylesheet just tells you not to use homophobia (or Islamophobia or, presumably, xenophobia), without suggesting what you should write and say instead. But suppose you propose to follow their advice, or maybe just want a word that covers your psychological state vis-a-vis homosexuals or homosexuality precisely, and suppose that this state is less in the fear zone and more in the hate zone (note that NOAD2’s main definitions for the verb hate have it expressing ‘intense or passionate dislike for’ and ‘strong aversion to’; the hate zone is the hate / dislike / aversion zone). For the moment, suppose further that you want to preserve the explicit reference to the Greek-derived terms homosexual(s) and homosexuality (rather than shifting to something involving gay or queer). What to do?

First possibility: use the morphosyntactic resources of the language: instead of homophobia,

the phrase hatred of/for/toward homosexuals OR hatred of/for/toward homosexuality (you’re going to have to choose)

OR the compound homosexual hatred (though that risks being misunderstood as ‘hatred of the homosexual variety, of the sort that homosexuals express’) OR homosexuality hatred (though compounds on this pattern, with an abstract nominalization as the first element, are surprisingly awkward-sounding)

OR the compound homosexual-hating OR homosexuality-hating

OR (to avoid the choice between homosexuals and homosexuality as the object of your hatred) the novel compound homo-hatred OR homo-hating, using the clipping homo

(with parallel choices to replace homophobe and homophobic).

Except for the last, these are long and awkward expressions, and they force you to distinguish between people and a state as the object of your hatred. (If you subscribe to “hate the sin, not the sinner”, an idea I find, well, hateful, then you’ll view this forced choice as a good thing.)

(For opposition to homosexuals or homosexuality, rather than hatred, if you’re willing to give up the Greek ‘same’ root homo-, then anti-gay is available, as an alternative to homophobic, at least.)

In the last couple of years, I’ve grown fond of homo-hatred (as an alternative to homophobia), homo-hater (for homophobe), and homo-hating (for homophobic). I like their meatiness.

Second possibility: borrow morphological resources from another language. Given that homosexual is itself a “hybrid word” (like television, automobile, monolingual, and sociology), half Greek, half Latin (such words are often derided by pedantic peevers as barbarisms), those two Classical languages are the obvious places to look.

Latin root od(i)- ‘hate’, Greek root mis(o)- ‘hate’. The Latin root has given us the noun odium ‘widespread hatred or disgust’ and the adjective odious ‘extremely unpleasant; repulsive, but (so far) has no active life as a word-forming element. The Greek root has given us the prefixal element mis(o)-, in three word sets of some currency (from NOAD2):

misanthropy ‘a dislike of mankind’ (misanthrope, misanthropic)

misogyny ‘dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women’ (misogynist, misogynistic)

misandry ‘dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against men’

Note that the meanings have been dialed back from from hate to mere dislike or contempt. If you’re an etymological absolutist, of course, you’ll insist that it has to denote hatred.

(There’s another English prefix mis-, in various senses with negative implications — misunderstand, misbehave, misfortune — but it has no connection to the ‘dislike’ prefix.)

Now the trick is to combine a ‘hate, dislike, aversion’ element with a ‘gay’ element. The clipped homo– (as in homophobia) will serve for the ‘gay’ element if it’s initial in the word; otherwise the full homosexual. That gives us two real easy coinages, both of which have been suggested, the first many times: homodium and misohomosexual.


(From the Whisper site.)

I’m really fond of the brief and punchy homodium (and homodist and homodic / homodistic). It does unfortunately remind me of the name of the diarrhea medicine Imodium; but nobody’s perfect. There is a genus Homodium (syn. Leptogium) of lichens, but I don’t see any chance for confusion there.

As for misohomosexual, I’m irresistibly drawn to picturing a soup-drinking queer — which I was, just a few paragraphs ago in the writing of this posting. Or it could be a fancy variant of sushi queen ‘gay man who fancies Japanese men’.

Which brings us back to Robert Epstein and his 2003 proposal of homomisia, the all-Greek counterpart to the Greek-Latin hybrid homodium.

All this learnèd word-coining is fun, but it’s not likely to go anywhere. Fancy new words do make it into English, but almost always from technical domains (medical, legal, scientific, etc.) and then only when the coinage in the technical domain strikes a larger group of speakers as being especially useful, as supplying a word we have a need for. Epstein and some other peevers think we really need a noun specifically referring to hatred of homosexuals. But people not in the grip of the etymological fallacy know that we already have such a word, namely homophobia. We don’t need another one.

Not that there would be anything wrong with having another one; I like homo-hatred for its transparency and its cheeky toughness, and I might toy playfully with homodia, but the world doesn’t actually need these words. It certainly doesn’t need misohomosexual or homomisia.

Something the world might need — certainly something I think  I could use — is a good snappy word for ‘hatred of homophobia, hatred of homo-hatred’ (who will hate the haters?). Homo-hatred-hatred obviously won’t do, though it’s funny, and even homophobia-hatred strikes me as dubious. Homophodium? It sounds like a perverse musical instrument. Wanna play my Greco-Latin homophodium?

2 Responses to “The agony of homophobia”

  1. Joseph F Foster Says:

    Maybe loathe n. would work. I for instance loathe brockley [I know — in Italian it’s *broccoli*.] — especially when it’s cooking. But I’m not afraid of it. So I’m a brockleyloathe. Or is that brockley loathe?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      loathe is a fine word, deserving of wider use. So I’m a homophobe-loather, or phobe-loather for short.

      It took me a couple of seconds to appreciate the eye dialect brockley. I have, I think, only the disyllabic variant, and I assume you do too. NOAD lists both, AHD only the trisyllabic variant (which tends to sound hypercorrect, or like a foreignism, to me).

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