April 15, 2007

Fear of Friday the 13th

Friday was a Friday the 13th. I am not superstitious about Friday the 13th - in fact, I had the qualifying exam for my Ph.D. on a Friday the 13th. What was notable was that I stumbled on a word that I hadn't seen before, paraskevidekatriaphobia, which turns out be the term for "fear of Friday the 13th". It gets 48,000 hits on Google, including a number of medical advice sites and reference sites, so it seems to have some currency. According to Skepdic, the term was coined by Dr. Donald Dossey, a psychologist who specializes in phobias. Here is his web site's page on holiday superstitions.

The word seemed strange to me, and after a little reflection I realized that that was because I had trouble analyzing it. It obviously contains Greek φοβία "fear", but where are the "Friday" and "13" components? dekatria has to be "13", so "Friday" must be paraskevi. However, these are not the familiar Greek words. Compare the more familiar triskaidekaphobia "fear of 13", in which "13" is triskaideka.

It turns out that this word was coined from Modern Greek components. In Modern Greek the teens are formed differently from the way they were in Ancient Greek, with "13" consisting of "10" followed by "3" rather than "3 and 10" as in Ancient Greek. The days of the week have different names too as when the Greeks became Christian they rejected the old names which honored pagan gods. In Ancient Greek, "Friday" is ἡμέρα Ἀφροδίτης "the day of (the goddess) Aphrodite". Παρασκευή "preparation (for the Sabbath)" is Modern Greek. No doubt we'll soon see conservative pundits insisting that it be replaced by the classical hemeraäphroditestriskaidekaphobia.

That this word seemed so unfamiliar reflects the fact, no doubt irritating to modern Greeks, that although English has many words borrowed from Greek or composed of components borrowed from Greek, the variety of Greek that is of cultural importance outside of Greece is Ancient Greek, especially Classical Attic. This is a rare example of an English word derived from Modern Greek.

Posted by Bill Poser at April 15, 2007 09:58 PM