14 January 2008

Fear of poetry? There must be a word for it.

Two items from New Scientist have caught my eye.

The first, about phobias, is discussed by Will Pavia in The Times (it's also reported briefly in today's Australian).

It is the fear that dare not speak its name. It is hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia.

Those afflicted are afraid of very long words, yet even as they attempt to lead normal lives, avoiding medical dictionaries and high-scoring Scrabble players, the very term that defines their condition hangs over their heads, terrifyingly polysyllabic.

Their irrational fear and the word that defines it has been catalogued by readers of New Scientist among a list of the most curious phobias to trouble modern man, as advertised by counselling companies promising a cure.

As readers delved deeper, a dictionary of phobias emerged that included some apparently reasonable apprehensions. There is nucleomituphobia, the fear of nuclear weapons, the fear of dentists (odontophobia) and a fear of the French (Francophobia).

The dictionary of phobias appeared on the website of a US company selling alternative treatments. ChangeThatsRightNow.com details 1,500 phobias, including paraskavedekatriaphobia, the fear of Friday the 13th. It offers “one-to-one help” for about £1,200.

New Scientist was sceptical, noting that “phobias conspicuous by their absence included “fear of silly marketing” and “fear of repetitive websites”.

Yesterday, several British psychologists insisted that phobias existed for almost anything.

Robert Endelmann, a chartered psychologist and a patron of the National Phobics Society, said: “It’s not unusual for people to have unusual phobias. Coulrophobia, the fear of clowns, is surprisingly common.”

Such phobias often develop after a traumatic experience. Emma Citron, a chartered clinical psychologist commonly treats elderly astraphobics, who fear thunder. “It reminds them of the Blitz,” she said.

Then there are learned phobias, that sufferers may have “caught” from friends or family, and there are phobias that may have a deep-rooted biological trigger. “Fear of the dark, fear of high places and fear of things that move quickly, such as spiders or snakes – it would have been useful for our ancestors to be afraid of such things,” Professor Endelmann said. For all that, there are phobias on the list that remain hard to explain. Lutraphobics are afraid of otters. Octophobics fear the number eight.

Then there are phobiaphobics who are afraid of phobias, and are surely caught on the horns of a terrible dilemma. In order to rid themselves of their phobia they would probably need to acquire another one.

It was left to Alexander Gardner, a psychologist, to sum up the proliferation of phobias. “I have a fear of Times reporters,” he said. “I have to go.”

The second, mentioned on the New Scientist website describes " Hitch Haiku", a Japanese computer program which can create haiku using two or three keywords.

Naoko Tosa of Kyoto University in Japan has written a program that takes two or three keywords entered by a user and creates a three-line poem related to them in the haiku's structure of five, seven and five syllables per line.

To find related words, the software searches several databases, including a thesaurus, a database that links words that relate to the same season, and one that links onomatopoeic words. Using another database on how words are ordered, it strings word combinations together. The combination that is most relevant to the keywords and obeys the syllable rules forms the poem.

The user can make changes to the haiku, which the program uses to learn the user's preferences.

The concept is explained further(in English) on a six minute YouTube video which is a tad more erudite than most of the other material posted to that estimable site.

The only verse form which I feel at all comfortable about composing is the limerick. After watching the video's explanation of the haiku's literary subtleties I wouldn't for a moment suggest that the limerick is worthy of such scholarly endeavour. A rhyming dictionary should meet most people's needs.

And the word for fear of poetry? I don't know. Can anyone help?

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