agoraphobia

Hello from my dad's house in New York State. Not only did I survive my hotel quarantine, I (more BrE in this position) quite enjoyed it.  In the three days that I've been out, I've done several things that I haven't done since March (at least), including going into a supermarket and a restaurant. What I really missed in small-town American quarantine was the ability to get things delivered (and to order them over the internet, not phone—which would have been an international call for me). I was almost completely dependent (save one Domino's delivery) on brothers and sisters-in-law to shop or get take-out/take-away for me. The very American hotel room had a fridge/freezer and a microwave, so at least I didn't need help every day.

I was extremely well-suited for the quarantine. First, I love staying in hotels. They don't even need to be fancy hotels—just clean and quiet ones. Second, and more importantly, I had four years of cautious and isolated living in South Africa. I got very good at keeping my own company. Third, I have a book to write. The hotel days flew by for me. 

I'd already been thinking, during lockdown in the UK, that I didn't really mind not being able to go out much. Though I usually have a full social calendar of restaurants and shows and quiz nights and parties, I was generally not missing them. (The only thing I'm really-really missing is writing in coffee shops. I find it very hard to book-write at home. Or hotel.) I also have hypochondriac and germophobe tendencies, so the more I stayed (at) home, the more I feared going out. And so I'd been wondering a lot about whether I'd be ready when restrictions lifted and I could go out. And wondering if this is going to be a widespread problem.

This trip to see my dad is functioning as intensive desensiti{s/z}ation therapy, but I'm not the only one who has worried about agoraphobia, as you can find by googling "coronavirus" and "agoraphobia". Here's a bit from one piece in the British newspaper i:

Fletcher says he’s noticed a huge spike in the number of referrals to his client base of individuals displaying agoraphobic tendencies since lockdown began – as have organisations such as Sane and Anxiety UK, both of which reported a 200 per cent increase in calls to their helplines related to the pandemic.

But the thing that stops me from talking about this matter is the pronunciation. When I say agoraphobia, my British friends either don't understand me the first time or comment on my strange pronunciation. I pronounce it with the o, the word agora ('gathering place, marketplace') plus the word phobia. "aGORaphobia"  When my UK friends say it, it's more like "agraphobia", which to me sounds too much like acrophobia—fear of heights.

Neither my friends nor I are pronouncing it in the way that most dictionaries have it, with the o pronounced as an unstressed vowel (schwa). Agheraphobia. 

But, and I don't know if this will work when you click on it, my pronunciation is the one that Google gives as American


 

Unfortunately, it's also what they give as the British pronunciation. Don't believe everything that the internet tells you. Audio files of pronunciations are potentially a wonderful plus for online lexicography, but they are the most likely part of a dictionary entry to be wrong, as far as I can tell. You can't do lexicography well without a lot of person power, and these files have often been rushed to the web in some kind of automated way. I recommend a lot of caution on British services' American pronunciations and vice versa.

But another bit of evidence that we can use for pronunciation is spelling, and I have seen agoraphobia represented without the first o in BrE, indicating that some people aren't hearing it there (and maybe don't know the etymology from agora). There's not a lot of this in the GloWBE corpus—but there is a little. As well as evidence that people don't talk about it as much in AmE:

 
 
In the end, this is not a very common word, and many people will have experienced it either in print or in speech but not both, allowing for a lot of variation in how people assume it should be pronounced or spel{led/t}. I'd expect that a lot of you will have different experiences of what you think the most common pronunciation where you are is. You can hear a lot of them at YouGlish (be sure to click the 'forward' button to advance to the next pronouncer) and draw your own conclusions.

20 comments

  1. The audio clip is how I learned to say it in US medical school. I actually wasn't familiar with the term until then. Although I feel like my reading of that written out pronunciation doesn't match the audio clip.

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  2. I pronounce it closer to the way you say it but I think this is my Welsh-language brain coming through. 'Agor'("AH-gor") in Welsh is 'to open' (you often see 'Ar agor' signs on shop doors, meaning the shop is open). When faced with an unfamiliar word, I think Welsh brain takes over and in this case it actually makes a lot of sense, even if the stress ends up in the 'wrong' place!

    Interesting what you said about it coming from 'agora'. I assume the Welsh etymology is linked- a rabbit hole for this afternoon.
    .

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  3. Another site that's usually good for listening to a variety of pronounciations is forvo.com. They only have 3 speakers who've recorded "agoraphobia", but I think the British woman there has the pronounciation you are describing with the first syllable being longer. I (U.S. west coast) say it like Google does, with secondary stress on the second syllable, even though they don't show it in the image.

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  4. I first encountered the word in the sixties when I read a forties SF story by American author Clifford Simak, one of his City series. I'd pronounce it your way, and I'm British. But I knew the etymology - I think it was in the story.

    But I recall a conversation in the seventies with a colleague who pronounced it the other way. She reckoned - had been taught by her Latin teacher, I think she said - that it had the same root as agriculture: agros, a field.

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    1. OK, I checked... it turns out that Welsh agor 'to open', Latin ager 'field', and Ancient Greek agora 'marketplace' all have different etymologies! They go back to three different Proto-Indo-European roots:

      Welsh agor from a negative prefix + *ǵʰer- 'to enclose'
      Latin ager from *h₂éǵros 'field, pasturage'
      Greek agora from *h₂ger- 'to assemble, gather together'

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  5. For what it's worth, I (BrE) learnt it verbally, and there is no sign at all of the initial 'o' in my pronunciation. I've only just learnt that *anyone* pronounces it!

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  6. Six syllables. But the second one is a schwa unless I'm speaking very carefully .

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  7. FWIW, MW's Unabridged (I have a subscription through work) gives the schwaful pronunciation first, even though it's a US dictionary. That pronunciation seems to fit the library/secretary/laboratory pattern between BrE and AmE, no?

    ˌa-g(ə-)rə-ˈfō-bē-ə, ə-ˈgȯr-ə-

    I wonder if the second pronunciation, with more accent on the second syllable, may also correlate with how people learn of the term. As a teenager in the early 80s, I remember learning of many phobias only by lists that explained what the word meant and its etymology -- "arachnophobia -- fear of spiders, from Greek 'arachne' for spider." So, "agoraphobia" -- agora+phobia. It was the parts that stuck in my mind rather than the whole.

    It was only years later that I started hearing "agoraphobia" come up naturally as a behavioral syndrome. So I wonder if people learning in that way are more likely to use the more UK-ish pronunciation, because they aren't focused on how the word is composed.

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    1. (Much as I love "schwaful" as a word, I now see it makes absolutely no sense applied here: each pronunciation involves two schwas, differing only in location. )

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  8. Hi Lynn. For me (in the UK) the Google link you provided does give the British pronunciation, both in the audiofile and in the transcription. I hear a schwa in the second syllable, and I think I also have a schwa when I say the word, although I probably drop it some of the time.

    From your comment that you pronounce it as “the word agora ('gathering place, marketplace') plus the word phobia”, it sounds like you also pronounce agora with stress on the second syllable and a full o-vowel.

    As a member of a Classics Faculty at a university I can confirm that the usual British pronunciation of agora matches the first member of agoraphobia, with stress on the first syllable, and a schwa in the second syllable (although the OED gives the schwa as optional). Probably restricted to classicists is the more affected pronunciation with stress on the final vowel, which is pronounced as [a] rather than schwa. This is because the final vowel is long and has the accent in Greek.

    For what it’s worth the OED entry, updated in 2012, claims AmEng also has initial stress and - non-optional – schwa in the second syllable.

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    1. Also I can't believe I spelt your name wrong. Sorry!

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  9. The one that Google gives as British (a.guh·ruh·fow·bee·uh) is the one I'm familiar with.

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    1. Huh, when I switched to British the pronunciation stayed the same as the American. I wonder if it’s changed, if the location mattered, or if I did something wrong!

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  10. Offtopic: I suggest "aggeraphobia" is a more universal respelling than "agheraphobia". In Irish placenames intervocalic -gh- is pronounced /h/ (yes, this violates the phonotactics of other Englishes; not our problem). In fact my cousins live in a place called Agher which AFAIK nobody is afraid of.

    Ontopic: there was an episode of 'Minder' with a London villain who was [quote] ag'rophobic -- that don't mean 'e's afraid of aggro -- 'e loves i' [unquote] Dunno if the episode predates Suzi Quatro's 1976 album 'Aggro-Phobia'.

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  12. Perhaps this is related to how the word "agora" itself is pronounced? I've always pronounced it, and heard it pronounced, /ˈæ.ɡə.ɹə/ (i.e. with first syllable stress and a schwa in the second syllable). I probably learned the word while studying classics at a fairly traditional English school, and this pronunciation would match the "traditional" English pronunciation for such loanwords (since the second syllable in the original Greek ends in a short vowel).

    Perhaps second-syllable stress is used in some dialects?

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  13. I (BrE) definitely say "Agraphobia" and I think would have spelled it like that as well.

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  14. I'm responsible for the Cambridge Dictionary website and can state that we don't use auto-generated audio. We record all American and British pronunciations in studios (at great expense - so as we add words, the audio for them tends to lag behind the release of the terms themselves to the website, because we collect enough to fill at least a day's worth of studio time before we book the voice actors). I was curious about our pron for "agoraphobia" because, like Lynne, I pronounce the word with clear secondary stress on the second syllable, so a,gora'phobia. But our site gives only the schwa pron for the AmE. It's clearly pronounced as a syllable, not absorbed, but it's certainly not what I say. I will now send our editors down a rabbit hole to determine whether we should add the way Lynne and I say it as a variant pronunciation. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/agoraphobia

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)