Fear of Friday the 13th and other phobias

The superstition that Friday the 13th brings bad luck is so widespread in Western countries that the English language has not one, but two words for ‘fear of Friday the 13th’. Now I say “English language”, but the words in question look as un-English as they come:

paraskavedekatriaphobia: a compound made up of borrowings < Greek παρασκευή ‘Friday’ + δεκατρείς ‘thirteen’ + ϕοβία ‘fear’;

friggatriskaidekaphobia < Frigg (the Norse Goddess whom Friday is named after) + triskaidekaphobia (< τρεῖσκαιδεκα, another way to express ‘thirteen’ in Greek + ϕοβία ‘fear’).

While it seems very practical to be able to express this concept with a single word, I don’t really think these terms are going to catch on soon… (I think being able to pronounce them is a crucial first step requiring more time and effort than most people – including myself – are willing to put in). However, I do appreciate this type of morphological creativity which also spawned hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia, ‘fear of the number 666’.

The possibilities of stringing together Ancient Greek borrowings seem endless but the question is how many of these fantastic creations actually make it into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). A quick search for *phobia results in 128 dictionary entries, including one for the suffix –phobia which they say was borrowed from Greek via Latin: “post-classical Latin -phobia (in e.g. hydrophobia ‘fear of water’) < Hellenistic Greek ϕοβία”.

The list includes some familiar, widely-used items such as claustrophobia (fear of confined places) and arachnophobia (fear of spiders), the latter of which reminds me of the 90s horror film of the same name, and leaves me wondering if usage of the term increased after millions of movie-goers had been exposed to (and possibly traumatized by) a plague of giant spiders.

Other –phobia entries in the OED are more obscure, and their meanings are often opaque at first sight due to the fact that the compounds are entirely made up of Latin or Greek elements, like ergophobia, ‘fear of work’ (from Greek ἔργον ‘work’). A particular one that catches my eye is ailurophobia, ‘intense fear of or aversion to cats’, simply because I am a big fan of cats (this is the understatement of the year; I know 2017 has only just begun, but this is it).

One of the first attestations of ailurophobia given in the OED is quite hilarious, though:

1905   A. Lang in Morning Post 16 June 4/3   Finding a lady, rather ailurophobic, in a low dress at dinner Tippoo suddenly leaped up and alighted on her neck. He was never so friendly with non-ailurophobes.

(Yes, they do that!)

I am relieved to find some –phobia compounds that I can immediately understand because they combine with English nouns: computer phobia, commitment phobia (note the space between the words) and germophobia (with a connective –o-).

Going through the OED I notice that the words that started this quest, paraskavedekatriaphobia and friggatriskaidekaphobia, are not listed at all, and that they are probably not the only missing –phobias. My suspicion is confirmed when I stumble on a little gem called The Phobia List which contains hundreds of –phobias that I have never even heard of, including weirdly specific ones, like pteronophobia, ‘fear of being tickled by feathers’ and arachibutyrophobia, ‘fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth’.

Some phobias actually make a lot of sense when you think about it, such as albuminurophobia, ‘fear of kidney disease’ or rhabdophobia, ‘fear of being severely punished or beaten by a rod, or of being severely criticized’. Others seem to be a bit random: consecotaleophobia, ‘fear of chopsticks’, oenophobia, ‘fear of wines’ and siderodromophobia, ‘fear of railways or railway travel’ (although the latter must be a relatively common condition since it is listed in the OED!).

On a more personal note, I’m glad that this quest has taught me a term to explain why I have trouble getting out of bed in the morning (psychrophobia), and I think that my mother will be happy when I tell her that she is not the only person in the world suffering from ranidaphobia.

Eline van der Veken
Editor-in-chief of Brill’s Linguistic Bibliography


Friday the 13th: https://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/world/friday-13

Oxford English Dictionary: http://www.oed.com/

The Phobia List: http://phobialist.com/






Zipf’s law – Of dwarves and giants

Imagine this: around 6 percent of the things you say and write are “the…” and that’s it: the is the most frequent word of the English language and you use it altogether probably as much as often compared to other words. But this fact is just the tip of the iceberg of a rather puzzling and remarkable property of the human language. When you look at the frequency ranking of the top 20 words in English, namely: the of and to a in that it is was I for on you he be with as by at (cf. http://www.wordcount.org/main.php or another source http://www.wordfrequency.info), the words occur according to a highly regular and systematic frequency distribution the so called Zipf’s law named after the linguist George Kingsley Zipf (1902-1950) (cf. Pustet 2004). According to his work the second most frequent word of a language appears half as often as the most frequent word, the third most frequent one a third as often, the forth a forth as often, and so on until you get something like this:

And this works for all the words in a language, from highly frequent ones like the to less frequent ones like jellyfish. So the frequency of a word is just 1 over its rank and follows therefore the Zipfian power law or maybe even a set pattern so to speak. The frequency of words of a natural language vary in this way enormously, which is not trivial at all; as a result there are few ‘giant words’ as the or with and countless many dwarves as ravioli or catamaran and those giants cover a ginormous amount of the language produced.

And this is not only true for English but for all languages for which so far data is available, even for languages, which are not even deciphered yet as e. g. Meroitic (cf. Smith 2008), which could indicate that this pattern applies to all languages in the world. Just have a look at this:

(cf. Bentz et al. 2015 or Piantadosi 2014: 1117 for even more languages: Spanish, Russian, Greek, Portuguese, Chinese, Swahili, Chilean, Finnish, Estonian, French, Czech, Turkish, Polish, Basque, Maori, Tok Pisin)

It is to some extent even true for the around 470 words in this tiny little piece of blog:

But why is that? Very many linguists tried to figure this out and give a good reason for it. The longer than usual bibliography below gives an impression of that. For example Altmann et al. (2011) claim that a word’s certain use, its niche, which means its characteristic properties and contexts in which it is used have a strong impact on its frequency in a language and also on the changes involved over time. To put it simple, people start to use the word chat once the concept of chat is ‘invented’ with which the total amount of occurrences increases. However this is only one of many explanations, notions or implications of the Zipfian Distribution or the language riddle of giants and dwarves and yet there is still a lot to explore about it.

For further reading explore the literature below.

Jonas Schreiber (FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg)
Intern at Brill’s Linguistic Bibliography


Altmann, Gabriel: Zipfian linguistics. – Glottometrics 3, 2002, 19-26.

Altmann, Eduardo G.; Pierrehumbert, Janet B.; Motter, Adilson E.: Beyond Word Frequency: Bursts, Lulls, and Scaling in the Temporal Distributions of Words. – PLoS ONE 4(11): e7678, 2009. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.000767

Baayen, R. Harald. Word frequency distributions. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001.

Balasubrahmanyan, V. K.; Naranan, S.: Algorithmic information, complexity and Zipf’s law. – Glottometrics 4, 2002, 1-26.

Bentz, Christian; Verkerk, Annemarie; Kiela, Douwe; Hill, Felix; Buttery, Paula : Adaptive communication : languages with more non-native speakers tend to have fewer word forms. – PLoS ONE 10(6): e0128254, 2015. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0128254.

Borin, Lars: Med Zipf mot framtiden – en integrerad lexikonresurs för svensk språkteknologi. – LexicoNordica 17, 2010, 35-54.

Dębowski, Lukasz: Zipf’s law against the text size: a half-rational model. – Glottometrics 4, 2002, 49-60.

Ellis, Nick C.: Formulaic language and second language acquisition : Zipf and the phrasal teddy bear. – Annual review of applied linguistics 32, 2012, 17-44.

Fenk-Oczlon, Gertraud; Fenk, August: Zipf’s tool analogy and word order. – Glottometrics 5, 2002, 22-28.

Ferrer i Cancho, Ramon: Hidden communication aspects in the exponent of Zipf’s law. – Glottometrics 11, 2005, 98-119.

Ferrer i Cancho, Ramon; Solé, Ricard V.: Two regimes in the frequency of words and the origins of complex lexicons : Zipf’s Law revisited. – Journal of quantitative linguistics 8/3, 2001, 165-173.

Ferrer i Cancho, Ramon; Servedio, Vito: Can simple models explain Zipf’s law for all exponents? – Glottometrics 11, 2005, 1-8.

Grzybek, Peter; Kelih, Emmerich: Häufigkeiten von Buchstaben / Graphemen / Phonemen : Konvergenzen des Rangierungsverhaltens. – Glottometrics 9, 2005, 62-73

Hatzigeorgiu, Nick; Mikros, Georgios K.; [Karagiannis, Giorgios] Carayannis, George: Word Length, Word Frequencies and Zipf’s Law in the Greek Language. – Journal of quantitative linguistics 8/3, 2001, 175-185.

Hřebíček, Luděk: Zipf’s law and text. – Glottometrics 3, 2002, 27-38.

Kromer, Victor: Zipf’s law and its modification possibilities. – Glottometrics 5, 2002, 1-13.

Manin, Dmitrii Y.: Mandelbrot’s model for Zipf’s law : can Mandelbrot’s model explain Zipf’s law for language? – Journal of quantitative linguistics 16/3, 2009, 274-285.

Montemurro, Marcello A.; Zanette, D.: Frequency-rank distribution of words in large text samples: phenomenology and models. – Glottometrics 4, 2002, 87-98.

Németh, Géza; Zainkó, Csaba: Multilingual statistical text analysis, Zipf’s law and Hungarian speech generation. – Acta linguistica Hungarica: an international journal of linguistics 49/3-4, 2002, 385-405.

Piantadosi, Steven T.: Zipf’s word frequency law in natural language: a critical review and future directions. – Psychonomic bulletin & review 21, 2014, 1112-1130.

Pine, Julian M.; Freudenthal, Daniel; Krajewski, Grzegorz; Gobet, Fernand R.: Do young children have adult-like syntactic categories? : Zipf’s law and the case of the determiner. – Cognition 127/3, 2013, 345-360.

Prün, Claudia: A text linguistic hypothesis of G. K. Zipf. – Journal of quantitative linguistics 4, 1997, 244-251.

Prün, Claudia; Zipf, Robert: Biographical notes on G. K. Zipf [1902-1950]. – Glottometrics 3, 2002, 1-10.

Pustet, Regina: Zipf and His Heirs. – Language sciences 26/1, 2004, 1-25.

Rousseau, Ronald: George Kingsley Zipf [1902-1950]: life, ideas, his law and informetrics. – Glottometrics 3, 2002, 11-18.

Sigurd, Bengt; Eeg-Olofsson, Mats; Weijer, Joost van de: Word length, sentence length and frequency : Zipf revisited. – Studia linguistica : a journal of general linguistics 58/1, 2004, 37-52 | With data from English, Swedish and German.

Smith, Reginald: Investigation of the Zipf-plot of the extinct Meroitic language. – Glottometrics 15, 2007, 53-61.

Uhlířová, Ludmila: Zipf’s notion of “economy” on the text level. – Glottometrics 3, 2002, 39-60.

Wheeler, Eric S.: Zipf’s law and why it works everywhere. – Glottometrics 4, 2002, 45-48.

Zanette, D.; Montemurro, Marcello A.: Dynamics of Text Generation with Realistic Zipf’s Distribution. – Journal of quantitative linguistics 12/1, 2005, 29-40.

Zipf, George K.: Human behavior and the principle of least effort. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley Press, 1949.