Advances in phobology

… the science of fear and fears, to which Gary Larson made a sort of contribution in this 1988 Far Side cartoon:


It was, of course, a joke: a term for a preposterous fear. Fear of ducks, sure, but fear that a duck is watching you? That’s a wild paranoid phobia akin to Dinsdale Piranha’s paranoid phobia of Spiny Norman, a gigantic imaginary hedgehog, in Monty Python’s “Piranha Brothers” skit.

For the most part, the joke got passed around as a joke —  but without the context of its occurring in a  cartoon, and in the context of the many lists of remarkable phobias you can find all over the place, the funny word and its astonishing definition have taken on a shadow life of their own.

Then, on the quibbling front, there’s the ill-formedness of anatidaephobia as the name of a phobia, any phobia, even a phobia of ducks.

The joke definition has been been made into a texty, a kind of joke placard, on several occasions. Two of them, one in the passive, the other in the active:



The problem with texties is that you can’t tell whether they are telling a joke or communicating a piece of arcane information. (Both uses are well attested.) So the way is open for things like the site on phobias, which has a “Fear of Ducks Phobia – Anatidaephobia” page that reports, sympathetically, that

There are many kinds of seemingly irrational fears and phobias prevalent in the world. What might be laughing matter to people, is not so to a phobic. Anatidaephobia is one such phobia. A person suffering from this condition feels that somewhere in the world, a duck or a goose is watching him/her (not attacking or touching, simply watching the individual).

The word Anatidaephobia is derived from Greek word ‘Anatidae’ which means ducks, geese or other water fowls, and phobos is Greek for dread/fear.

The fear of ducks phobia can be a debilitating anxiety condition, wherein, no matter what one is doing or where s/he is in the world, they feel the constant presence of a duck or goose.

(The comments are all about the fear of ducks, which isn’t common but is attested. I know of one case from personal experience, a condition so severe that just mentioning ducks set off visible physical distress, of mingled fear, hatred, and rage.)

Vocabulary. There are two learnèd words for ‘phobia, fear of ducks’, one with a Greek-based first element, to go along with the Greek-based –phobia; the other with Latin-based first element (English words with Classical elements not infrequently mix Greek and Latin bases, as in television):

all-Greek papiaphobia < Gk. πάπια pápia ‘duck’ + –phobia

mixed anatiphobia < Lat. anati– ‘duck’ ( anas, anatis) + –phobia

Where does Larson’s anatidaephobia come from? What’s the anatidae part?

It’s the of a fem. noun. That’s already odd, since learnèd compounds in English (and in fact compounds in Latin and Greek) use roots or bases, rather than inflected forms, for their elements. And anatidae is not in fact the plural of anas; that’s anatēs; instead, it’s the on the noun/adjective base anatid– ‘duck-like (creature)’. The name Anatidae actually has a life as a technical term in zoology; it’s the name of the family of ducks, geese, and swans (that is, duck-like birds). So if you could coerce anatidaephobia into being the name of a phobia, it would refer to a phobia of ducks, geese, and swans, not just ducks: anatidophobia, that would properly be. For the specific birds, there are specific phobias; the mixed-language names:

ducks: anatiphobia
geese: anseriphobia
swans: cygnophobia

A reasonable person should be wary of swans, and cautious with geese, but in general, ducks are not alarming. Correspondingly, there are, I believe, a fair number of cygnophobes, some anseriphobes, and only a few anatiphobes (though there is the acquaintance I mentioned above).

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