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


Fear has come to be seen as the most primal, the most fundamental of human emotions. We imagine our ancestors huddled in caves while the thunder rolls above them, or frozen rigid to the spot, hearts hammering against ribs, as a fearsome beast slinks past. It was Charles Darwin, in 1872, who first insisted on fear’s primordial roots: “We may confidently believe,” he wrote, that “fear was expressed from an extremely remote period in almost the same manner as it is now by man.”

Most of the other animals who live on this planet share these involuntary responses to threat. Such reactions evolved to preserve the life of our species. The eyes widen and hearing sharpens, the heart beats rapidly and breathing becomes shallow or held in. We try to hide ourselves, or flee. Or else, riding a surge of adrenaline, we turn and fight (see: EXCITEMENT). The response is instinctive. Under threat, our bodies grab the controls, and put us on automatic pilot.

Fear is that simple. And yet

Aren’t there vast differences between worrying your partner will leave you, feeling spooked when the lights go dead and fainting in horror, as Erasmus reputedly did, at the sight of a plate of lentils? Can we really say the excited terror on the brink of an important enterprise and the blind panic felt when a car jokingly accelerates toward you are the same? Both are broadly “fear,” but the first contains germs of HOPEFULNESS and anticipation, and the second might leave us feeling ANGER and brittle with EMBARRASSMENT. In English we talk of different sorts of fear: of DREAD, WORRY, ANXIETY and TERROR. This is nothing. The Pintupi of Western Australia use at least fifteen different words to describe a whole panorama of fearful feelings, identified only by the very specific situations in which they occur (see: NGINYIWARRARRINGU).

Perhaps one of the most peculiar things of all about our friend fear—this most vital of emotions, the primal lifesaver—is our deep suspicion of it. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” proclaimed Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. The line was already a cliché: three and a half centuries earlier Michel de Montaigne had quipped, “The thing I fear most is fear.” Fear might be one of our greatest allies, saving us from mortal danger, yet we depict it as a furtive enemy, stealing in like a thief, derailing rational thought, inflaming latent anxieties, hobbling purposeful action. Fear can kill. According to the seventh-century medical manual The Book of Aurelius, a terrifying encounter with water—heavy rain or a swollen river—could bring on lethal “hydrophobia” (literally, “fear of water,” nowadays known as rabies). Ten centuries later, killer fear was still on the loose. According to the 1665 Bill of Mortality, a list of the weekly causes of death among Londoners, three unlucky souls perished after being “frighted” to death. Stampedes and desperate crushes can still kill us (see: PANIC). Or can make us feel as if we might die (see: PEUR DES ESPACES). And sometimes, with its urgent requirement that we defend ourselves against enemies at all costs, even rootless fears can leave devastation and death behind (see: PARANOIA).

In the West we live in what have been called “fear-averse” societies. Our public spaces may be festooned with security cameras, and warnings to be vigilant might boom out over our public transport systems. But these repeated exhortations to reduce risk may increase our nervousness. Continually reminded of our vulnerabilities, we may become more susceptible to political rhetoric that offers us protection in the face of global menace (see: TERROR). The situation is exacerbated by what sociologist Frank Furedi calls “fear entrepreneurs”—businesses or advocacy groups who stoke up threats with screaming headlines and pernicious ads (“Will eating chips cause dementia?” “Are you losing your hair?” “Are you UNFULFILLED by your JOB?”). “It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase,” wrote David Foster Wallace in his novel Infinite Jest. It’s not just that fear can be stoked by so many sources, it’s that new reasons to be frightened appear each day. We used to be scared of thunder and wild beasts: now seeing an ad in a newspaper or getting on a train seems to bring some new danger into focus. And it may be that we’ll need more than a shopping trip to deal with it.

See also: COURAGE.