Phobias and isms

Which one of these is not like the others?

  • Racism
  • Sexism
  • Speciesism
  • Ageism
  • Classism
  • Anti-Semitism
  • Able-bodyism
  • Homophobia

Why is sexual orientation the only discriminatory category defined as a phobia? It would have been more consistent to use “homosexualism”, a term which instead typically signifies the condition of being homosexual. Similarly, “transphobia” is in vastly more frequent use than “transism”.

Curious, I looked up the first usages of these terms in the OED, thinking that perhaps the “isms” and “phobias” had emerged at different times, under the sway of different linguistic mores. I was surprised to find how young most of these words are (and that they all emerged more or less with their contemporary meanings):

  • Racism, 1936
  • Sexism, 1968 (and sexist, 1965)
  • Speciesism, 1975
  • Ageism, 1969
  • Classism, 1842
  • Anti-Semitism, 1881
  • Homophobia, 1969 (though the original meaning, “fear of men”, dates to 1920)

The last term, homophobia, was only added to the OED within the last few years (my 2004 print copy has no entry).

But this brings us no closer to explaining the etymological difference between “phobias” and “isms”. “Homophobia”, “sexism”, and “ageism” are nearly contemporaneous.

My instinct is to leap to a cultural explanation: that discrimination on the basis of sexuality carries different cultural connotations than discrimination on the basis of age, sex, etc.; that sexuality, as a psychological state, invites a perception of otherness somehow distinct from physical states like race, sex, and age; and that otherness begets fear. My next instinct is to suppose that this distinction reveals some clue about the psychology of the phobias which ought to help progressives combat them.

I haven’t verified either of those instincts, and I’m not entirely sure how to investigate their merit.

This might be of some interest:


Edit: also this.

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  • Liz  On 17 May 2012 at 5:52 pm

    This was incredibly interesting – I can’t believe how late in the game some of these words came to be. I’m interested in the shift from homophobia as it was recognized originally to the fear of gays that came about in 1969 (at the height of sexual and political revolution, nonetheless). I find it somewhat odd that a new word wasn’t created; I’ve always found it strange that homophobia is literally fear of people, and wondered if it isn’t somehow related to not a fear of otherness, but a fear of what lies latent within oneself.

    • Benjamin Miller  On 18 May 2012 at 1:06 pm

      The homo of homophobia and the homo of homo sapiens both derive from the Greek prefix meaning “the same” or “the same kind”, which makes homophobia a particularly puzzling term. Even the older meaning, “fear of men”, doesn’t seem to make a lot of etymological sense–you might logically expect the term to indicate a fear of things that are like one another (twins?), not things that are like you, and certainly not things that are attracted to things similar to themselves. I agree, it’s very strange that a more intuitive term (like homosexualism) didn’t and hasn’t arisen.

      Incidentally, a friend reminded me of the term Islamophobia, which might throw a wrench in my cultural explanatory hypothesis. It does seem to me that there’s a real dearth of terms for religious bigotry and persecution. Why aren’t there “religionists” or even “religiophobes”?

  • Claude  On 4 June 2012 at 10:34 am

    Keep up with your usual razor-sharp analysis. It’s always a joy to read, my friend!

  • Colleen Fuller  On 9 November 2014 at 5:27 pm

    “Isms” seem to describe systemic or structural forms of oppression – racism, sexism, ageism, etc.. whereas phobias are irrational fears; a medical term. I would say the application of “phobia” when referring to systems of prejudice against homosexuals in inappropriate. I don’t know if “homosexualism” is the right term but it’s more in line with something that is systemic rather than medical or psychological.

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