The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


It was hard to establish whether signs of life had ceased. Tickling with feathers, placing mirrors over mouths and needles under the toenails were all techniques favored by physicians diagnosing death in the eighteenth century. No wonder, then, that when corpses were exhumed, some were found with their nails worn away and their kneecaps broken, and that scratch marks were found on the inside of coffin lids.

Like many of the names we now give our most urgent terrors, claustrophobia was coined by doctors in the nineteenth century—amid a rash of newspaper reports of premature burials. The new illness described a dread of enclosed spaces: closets, small rooms, elevators, caves. The clothes tighten at the neck. Sweat prickles the palms. The risk of suffocation feels so real that there is an overwhelming urge to bolt, but you can’t, feeding the trapped feeling further. Of the many popular accounts of the hours between waking up six feet under and suffocating to death that became popular at this time, Edgar Allan Poe’s description in “The Premature Burial” still brings a shudder. But perhaps the campaigner William Tebb’s 1895 book Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented is grislier still: “They will have to undergo slow suffocation, in furious despair, while scratching their flesh to pieces, biting their tongues, and smashing their heads against the narrow houses that confine them, and calling to their best friends, and cursing them as murderers.”

Since then the meaning of claustrophobia has bloated. It’s not just confined spaces that can produce its panicky constricted feeling; some relationships and social situations can also leave us desperate for air. The office party from which you’re eager to escape but must woodenly smile through. The lunch spent with an ex-friend, resentments bubbling beneath the stilted conversation. Gifts, help, even love can smother us. It’s when other people’s expectations tighten around us, and we’re duty bound to enjoy or show GRATITUDE or reciprocate that we can feel most stifled—and may just start scratching in a bid to escape.

See also: DISAPPEAR, the desire to.