It's not easy moving through the world when you're terrified of electricity. "Donna," 45, a writer, knows that better than most. Get her in the vicinity of an appliance or a light switch or--all but unthinkable--a thunderstorm, and she is overcome by a terror so blinding she can think of nothing but fleeing. That, of course, is not always possible, so over time, Donna has come up with other answers. When she opens the refrigerator door, rubber-soled shoes are a must. If a light bulb blows, she will tolerate the dark until someone else changes it for her. Clothes shopping is done only when necessary, lest static on garments send her running from the store. And swimming at night is absolutely out of the question, lest underwater lights electrocute her. When there's a possibility that lightning may strike, she simply shuts off everything in her house and sits alone in a darkened room until the danger passes.
There is a word--a decidedly straightforward one--for Donna's very extreme condition: electrophobia, or a morbid fear of electricity. You will find it listed right below eisoptrophobia (fear of mirrors) and not far above enetophobia, eosophobia and ereuthrophobia (fear of pins, daylight and blushing, respectively). And those are just some of the Es.
For every phobia the infinitely inventive--and infinitely fearful--human mind can create, there is a word that has been coined to describe it. There's nephophobia, or fear of clouds, and coulrophobia, the fear of clowns. There's kathisophobia, fear of sitting, and kyphophobia, fear of stooping. There are xanthophobia, leukophobia and chromophobia, fear of yellow, white and colors in general. There are alektorophobia and apiphobia, fear of chickens and bees. And deep in the list, lost in the Ls, there's lutraphobia, or fear of otters--a fear that's useful, it would seem, only if you happen to be a mollusk.
The list of identified phobias is expanding every day and is now, of course, collected online www.phobialist.com) where more than 500 increasingly quirky human fears are labeled, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, and cataloged alphabetically. Some have more to do with neology than psychology. (It's one thing to invent a word like arachibutyrophobia, another thing to find someone who's really afraid of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth.) Other phobias, however--like acrophobia (fear of heights), claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces) and agoraphobia (a crushing, paralyzing terror of anything outside the safety of the home)--can be deadly serious business.
If the names of phobias can be found online, the people who actually suffer from at least one of them at some point in their life--about 50 million in the U.S. by some estimates--are everywhere. They may be like "Beth," a pseudonym, a middle school student in Boston whose hemophobia, or fear of blood, was so severe that even a figure of speech like "cut it out" could make her faint. Or they may be like "Jean," 38, an executive assistant in New Jersey who is so terrified of balloons that just walking into a birthday party can make her break out in a sweat.