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Wow, Mom, Wow?

The name for the fear of palindromes? A palindrome itself.

Palindromes: Words or phrases that are the same whether written forward or backward. My personal favorite? “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama.” Read it in reverse, and you’ll see: the letters are the same whether read left-to-right or right-to-left.

(Never mind the historical accuracy of the palindrome. That’s a story for another day.)

If you have a fear of palindromes, there is a name for that fear: aibohphobia.

Look more closely at that name. What do you see? If you look closely, you may note it is itself a palindrome. That is, the name for the fear of palindromes is also a palindrome.

This may seem a cruel trick. After all, who would intentionally name a fear in a way that exacerbates that fear? Yet, when you consider both how nerdy wordsmiths can be and how difficult it can be to notice palindromes or create them, it begins to make more sense.

Truthfully, can someone actually have a fear of palindromes? As several mental health professionals would all too readily point out, not really. Given how hard it can be to identify palindromes, and the careful reading required, they are not something people notice unless they are looking for.

Consider some of the simplest palindromes: “Madam,” “Mom,” “Wow,” even “Wow, Mom, wow.” When your eyes first light on those palindromes, your brain doesn’t immediately recognize that they are palindromes. Instead, they read the words for meaning. Only if you are intentionally looking at the arrangement of the letters do you note that it is a palindrome.

And this is especially true when you look at longer palindromes, such as “Rise to vote, sir.” You read it as a sentence, looking for meaning, and only if you are looking for the palindrome do you see it.

As a result, linguists and psychologists say the name, aibohphobia, was chosen intentionally: A reflection of the fact that some phobias are a product of the mind, rather than of real fears.

Can you be afraid of public speaking (glossophobia), spiders (arachnophobia), or close spaces (claustrophobia)? Sure! Palindromes, though? Not so much.

So if you’re a Shakey Graves fan, here’s the truth: Aibohphobia isn’t something to fear.

Written by Matt Stebbins

Matt Stebbins is, with his wife, the co-founder of Endless Trails, a Pacific Northwest 501(c)3 trail advocacy non-profit, as well as a freelance writer and editor. Learn more at www.mattstebbins.com

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