The Grammarphobia Blog

Homophobia, past and present

Q: Whenever there’s an insensitive, insulting, inhumane, or vulgar comment about homosexuals, the press describes it as homophobia. However, “homophobia” would seem to be the irrational fear of homosexuals, not the hatred of them.

A: It’s true that the noun “phobia” principally means an exaggerated or irrational fear. But when “-phobia” is a word element that’s part of another noun, it can also mean hatred of something, not just fear of it.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “homophobia” in its usual contemporary sense as “fear or hatred of homosexuals and homosexuality.”

The adjective “homophobic” is defined by the OED as “pertaining to, characterized by, or exhibiting homophobia; hostile towards homosexuals.” And “homophobe” is “a homophobic person”—that is, someone hostile toward gay men or lesbians.

All three terms are relatively new in the sense you’re talking about, judging from the OED’s citations for their first appearances in print: “homophobia” in 1969; “homophobic” and “homophobe” in 1971.

However, the word “homophobia” is much older in another sense: fear of men. The first Oxford citation for this sense is from the June 5,1920, issue of Chambers’s Journal:

“Her salient characteristic was a contempt for the male sex as represented in the human biped …. The seeds of homophobia had been sown early.”

In a search of Google Books, we found a 1908 article in The Alienist and Neurologist, a quarterly medical journal, with what appears to be an even earlier citation for “homophobia” in this sense (juxtaposed with “gynephobia”).

In  an article entitled “La Phobie du Regard” (the fear of being looked at), C. H. Hughes describes a medical case and then adds, “In Beards’ neurasthenia or cerebrasthenia this phobie du regard would appear as homophobia and gynephobia.”

(Hughes is apparently referring to George Miller Beard, a 19th-century American neurologist who popularized the term “neurasthenia.”)

We also found an interesting later example of “homophobia” used to mean hatred of men. It comes  from The New Adventures of Ellery Queen, a 1940 story collection by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee (a k a Ellery Queen):

“Mr. Ellery Queen paled, and choking, set down his weapons. When he had first encountered the lovely Miss Paris, Hollywood’s reigning goddess of gossip, Miss Paris had been suffering from homophobia, or morbid fear of men.”

Now let’s return to your question about the modern use of the word “homophobia” to mean hatred or fear of homosexuals or homosexuality.

A precursor was “’homoerotophobia,” a term used by Wainwright Churchill in Homosexual Behavior Among Males (1967). Churchill, a clinical psychologist, described it as a cultural fear of same-sex sexuality.

Another clinical psychologist, George Weinberg, has said he coined the use of the term “homophobia” in its contemporary sense in the mid-1960s.

In an interview with Gay Today, Weinberg says he used the term in a speech in 1965. However, he didn’t use it in print until 1971, when his book Society and the Healthy Homosexual appeared.

In a prologue to the interview, Gay Today claims inaccurately that the OED credits Weinberg with coining the use of the term “homophobia” in this sense.

In fact, the OED’s first written citation for the term used in its newer sense is from the Oct. 31, 1969, issue of Time magazine:

“Such homophobia is based on understandable instincts among straight people, but it also involves innumerable misconceptions and oversimplifications.”

The noun “phobia” in English—as in “I have a phobia of spiders”—is defined this way in the OED: “a fear, horror, strong dislike, or aversion; esp. an extreme or irrational fear or dread aroused by a particular object or circumstance.”

The noun came into English in the 1780s and was adapted from Latin and Greek compounds that had -phobia as an element, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

As Chambers explains, the Romans borrowed the word element -phobia from the Greeks. In Greek, the noun phobos means fear and the verb phobein means frighten or put to flight. A related Greek verb, phebesthai, means to flee in terror.

The first such classical compound to come into English, according to the OED, was “hydrophobia,” which was borrowed from Latin in the 16th century. (Chambers says an early erroneous spelling, “ydroforbia,” appeared in 1392.)

“Hydrophobia” literally means a fear or a morbid dread of water, but since its earliest appearance it has also meant rabies. As the OED explains, this is because “an aversion to water or other liquids, and difficulty in swallowing them,” are symptoms of the disease when transmitted to humans.

“Hydrophobia,” the OED says, “is probably the model for subsequent English formations” ending in “-phobia.” Such words became “very abundant” in the 19th century, Oxford says.

Here are some examples, and the dates when they were first recorded in OED citations:

“Anglophobia” (coined by Thomas Jefferson, 1793), “pyrophobia” (fear of fire, 1858), “agoraphobia” (fear of crowds or of leaving home, 1871), “claustrophobia” (1879), and “gynophobia” (fear of woman, sometimes spelled “gynephobia,” 1886).

Also, “acrophobia” (fear of heights, 1888), “xenophobia” (aversion to foreigners, 1909), “triskaidekaphobia” (fear of the number thirteen, 1911), and “arachnophobia” (fear of spiders, 1925).

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