The Long and Short of How to Fight a Fear of Long Words
What’s the longest word you can think of?
Disney Lifers are bound to answer supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from Mary Poppins.
Shakespeareans can point to Love’s Labour’s Lost and the comically long honorificabilitudinitatibus.
Or maybe an all time favorite, Antidisestablishmentarianism.
Fans of James Joyce know that the opening of Finnegans Wake includes an experimental onomatopoeic “word” which spans a truly Joycean one hundred and one letters.
If all those big words have you worried, there’s good news and bad news.
The good news is that you’re not alone; a fear of long words is a recognized phobia.
The bad news is that it, too, is a long word: hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia. There is also an alternate term for it, sesquipedalophobia. As if it wasn’t enough dealing with the fear of long words, pronunciation of either term for this phobia can be its own tongue-twisting nightmare.
That said, as Professor Dumbledore so wisely tells Harry Potter in The Philosopher’s Stone, “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself”—however fearful the name hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia might be.
So, what is at the root of this long words phobia, and what can you do when confronted with all these “words, words, words?”
What’s Behind This Phobia?
What is a fear of long words? You just asked a mouthful.
One of the most difficult parts of dealing with this condition is simply getting people to take it seriously. How can someone be afraid of long words? Are you just saying that because you’re bad at Scrabble? The queries and comedy can come thick and fast, but for you, it’s anything but funny and all too real.
So, if you’ve felt silly for fearing long words, this is your validation—at least somewhat. The American Psychiatric Association does not recognize the condition as a distinct phobia in its own right. Rather, they note it as a social phobia, which is an umbrella term used for a wide range of potential phobias resulting from subjective triggers rooted in your surroundings. These tend to be different for every patient, so your form of sesquipedalophobia is bound to be different than anyone else who suffers from a fear of long words.
Related social phobias connected to words include the fear of books, bibliophobia, and the fear of poetry, metrophobia.
Some of the most common signs of a social phobia include having anxiety about a particular social situation, which is disproportionate to the issue in question. You may be anxious about reading books and sharing what you read with others. However, if Pride and Prejudice and poetry leave you screaming for the hills, this might be an overreaction to a stimulus (annoying as Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins may be).
Likewise, even if you’re the worst Scrabble player in the world, long words shouldn’t leave you trembling or physically disturbed.
If either of these scenarios apply to you, you may want to consider scheduling a visit with a medical professional to see what underlying conditions may be causing or exasperating your social phobia.
Causes and Symptoms
Many social phobias can trace their roots to something specific in your past which triggered or exasperated it. Maybe you were nervous about public speaking, tripped over some long words during a book report, and were publicly humiliated by your class. Maybe you had an extremely strict English teacher who threw the book at you (hopefully not literally). Whatever the cause, your fears likely stem from personal incidents and traumas. As a result, you’ll want to talk to a therapist to get to the root of your particular phobia, its causes and triggers, and what you can do about it.
Some of the Most Common Symptoms of Social Phobias
The following is a list of some, though not all, of the most common symptoms associated with social phobias:
● Avoiding reading altogether
● Dry mouth
● Difficulty breathing
Given the fact that everyone experiences social phobias differently, your symptoms may vary wildly.
In the case of this particular phobia, long words and books that you think may contain them can cause you severe anxiety. While those exaggeratedly long words at the beginning of the article are done for effect and not “serious,” they can nevertheless give anxiety to sufferers of this condition. They may fear pronouncing the words incorrectly and facing social consequences. As a social phobia, fear of public shaming and mockery stemming from mispronouncing words or “sounding stupid” are among the biggest symptoms and effects of sesquipedalophobia.
The aforementioned symptoms are for general social phobias because, again, social phobias are highly subjective and notoriously difficult to pin down with specific symptoms for each one.
The closest we come with cases such as sesquipedalophobia is a tendency to avoid books, especially those you suspect may have long words. In severe cases, that fear of books and long words may even result in nausea. However much we love to rip into “nauseatingly bad” books, this shouldn’t cause you physical symptoms.
Additionally, people with this condition may perpetually seek “excuses” not to read books, especially in public.
Effects of This Phobia
Sesquipedalophobia can affect your life in a variety of ways. For example, you may avoid public speaking altogether, which can severely damage your work and social prospects. Not being able to read long books will also seriously sabotage any academic aspirations you may have. Given the correlation between university education and income, a fear of long words can damage your long-term financial opportunities and severely limit your livelihood.
Professional Treatment Options
Because it is a social phobia, professionals can often only provide generalized assistance in helping you tackle it. For example, they can combine practices such as CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) to help rewire the way your brain thinks about a given concept, in this case long words.
Medications have been known to be helpful in managing a wide range of anxiety disorders. However, not much is known about their effectiveness in treating this particular phobia. Medications are helpful in combating anxiety in general, though because of their generalized nature and potential side effects, they are not typically a first option. Speaking with therapists to delve into and grapple with the cause of your phobia can be effective.
Social phobias are highly personal. There is only so much a therapist can do. You may want to supplement any professional therapies through self-help exercises.
Thankfully there are a wide range of self-treatment possibilities for sesquipedalophobia, such as:
● Deep breathing, meditation, and mindfulness exercises
● Cutting down on caffeine or other substances that might increase your anxiety
● Getting a good night’s sleep so that you are fully rested when facing situations involving long words
● Using smaller, simpler alternatives to longer words when possible
● Rehearse by pronouncing troublesome longer words in a safe, controlled setting
● Gradually working your way up from shorter to longer books and words
Above all, it is important to note that your phobia is neither “stupid” nor “permanent” in terms of its seriousness. Phobias such as these are typically not caused by your own behavior, and so it isn’t your “fault.” The thing about social phobias is that they are often just as much, if not more, about the cause of your fear than the fear itself. Help from mental health professionals and exercises such as those above can help you confront and gradually take control over the phobia.
Overcoming your fear of long words will take time, patience, and confidence—and that’s the long and short of it.