A thrill for those with logophilia

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A real treat for rare word spotters in the UK press this week: the words claustrophilia and koumpounophobia both actually appeared today in news stories where the thus-named conditions figured centrally. Words ending in the Greek combining form -philia denote weird conditions of extreme delight, and those ending in -phobia concern pathological horror. In this case, the -philia story has a very sad ending and the -phobia story has a happy ending.

The tragic case of Gareth Williams is currently at the coroner's court stage. Gareth was a cryptography expert working for MI6, the British intelligence service. After being missing for a week (during which MI6 showed no intelligence at all, because they didn't lift a finger to look for him), he was found dead in his own apartment, naked, and padlocked inside a large sports bag placed in the bathtub. His landlord had once previously found him in his bedroom tied to his bed and unable to free himself. Bondage for purposes of sexual arousal was suspected. And it is thought that he also derived quasi-sexual pleasure from being in tightly enclosed spaces. That is claustrophilia. Implausible as it may sound (and the coroner has not yet given a verdict), it seems that he may have succeeded in locking himself into the bag for a secret thrill and then been totally unable either to escape or to raise the alarm for someone to help him. A rather terrible death.

Koumpounophobia is a morbid fear of buttons. And there is a story in today's Metro about how Alex Torrance developed a severe case of this when (you can't make this stuff up) he was two and a bucket of buttons fell on him. He has been cured of it by two psychologists, Nik and Eva Speakman, and can now pick up his baby daughter without throwing up in horror at the little buttons on her clothes.

Neither claustrophilia nor koumpounophobia appears in the American Heritage Dictionary on my dictionary stand. These are very rare words. But for those who think it is terribly important that a culture should have the right words for things standing at the ready just in case they are needed, English came through once more. There they were, ready to do their conceptual labeling work, like all those snow words the hardy Inuit are reputed to be able to call upon.

[Update, 3 May 2012: For the record, the coroner, Dr Fiona Wilcox, has now recorded an open verdict on Gareth Williams, and while the exact cause of death is a mystery, she notes that almost certainly there was foul play. Extensive attempted replication shows he could not have locked himself into the bag in which he died, so it is very likely that claustrophilia was not involved. What happened may never be known. An MI6 cryptologist died mysteriously, and MI6 left it for a week before they lifted a finger to inquire about why he had disappeared from work… If this is all sounding rather chilling to you, you're not alone. —GKP]

[Sorry. Commentophobia.]

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