Final Word

The long and the short of xenophobia and other fears


The phenomenon of xenophobia was prominently back in the news in South Africa over the last week or two, giving reason to reflect on the term again.

Many months ago, during a previous wave of xenophobia, something that seems to hit South Africa on a regular basis, moving from region to region, we took a look in this column at the term ‘xenophobia’.

This time round it seems to have started in parts of Gauteng province, jumping to KwaZulu-Natal after King Goodwill Zwelithini of the Zulus did not choose his words carefully when making a remark about foreigners in that province. He allegedly said foreigners should leave the country because they are taking away economic opportunities and destroying local culture.

Reportedly during the attacks that followed on foreign-owned businesses one of the looters claimed the “king said the kwere-kwere must go”. Now, ‘kwere-kwere’ itself, meaning cockroach, is extremely loaded, having been a central dehumanising term used during the Rwanda genocide 21 years ago.

These circumstances prompted me to have a closer look again at the roots and elements of the term ‘hate for’, or is it ‘fear of’, foreigners.

And it turned out that there is not much of a dividing line between ‘fear’ and ‘hate’ in the context of xenophobia. It is defined as ‘an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or of that which is ‘foreign or strange’, with xeno meaning foreign or strange and phobia meaning fear.

Fear and phobia

The word ‘fear’ turned up in the English language around the 12th century, pulling together a number of like-sounding words of associated meanings: Middle English fere, from Old English fær (calamity, sudden danger, peril, sudden attack) from Proto-Germanic feraz (danger), Old Saxon far (ambush), Old Norse far (harm, distress, deception), Dutch gevaar and German gefahr (danger"), from Latin, the  verbal root per pronounced fer (to lead, pass over) and Latin cognates periculum (trial, risk, danger); Greek peria (trial, attempt, experience), Old Irish aire (vigilance) and finally Gothic ferja (watcher).

Somewhere in the 14th century it also took on the meaning of a ‘feeling of dread and reverence of God’. The accompanying expression of putting ‘the fear of God’ into someone or a group of people, implying to ‘intimidate or cause to cower’, has been around since the late 19th century.

The more or less synonym of ‘fear’, ‘phobia’, started its journey into English from the Greek word phobos, meaning ‘fear, panic, terror, outward show of fear; object of fear or terror’ and originally ‘flight’.

It next moved to Latin and from there to French before arriving in English towards the end of the 18th century, to indicate an extreme and often unreasonable fear of some object, concept, situation or person/s.

Combining with a wide range of other words, it gave us terms for specific kinds of fear, from the well-known ‘claustrophobia’ for a mortal fear of being constricted in limited space to the relative modern ‘xenophobia’, first recorded in 1903.

Final word of phobia

Spare a thought for the unfortunate soul who has a fear of long words – and yes, there are those with a fear of having to string together multiple syllables to form a single word.

Someone with that fear suffers from what is known as an affliction of ‘hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia’. Just imagine the agony of someone having to supply the term for his or her problem to master words of more than three syllables!

by Piet Coetzer

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