There’s a memorable line in Stephen King’s novel It (published in 1986) that perfectly captures the junction between coming of age and facing mortality: “Being a kid is learning how to live and being an adult is learning how to die.” In the novel, and in the 2017 film adaptation, if you happen to come face to face with Pennywise the Dancing Clown you will quickly learn the latter. King’s horror novel taps into the uncommon fear of clowns; of course, Pennywise is not your typical birthday party variety clown — he is an outlier: a creepy, homicidal sociopath. This discussion leads to our question for the day: what is the word for fear of clowns?
Clownophobia is an acceptable word; however, the technical word is coulrophobia, defined as the irrational or extreme fear of clowns. The word is pronounced “coal RA fow bee ah.” The editors of Oxford English Dictionary (OED) determined that the base word coulro is of arbitrary origin combined with the Greek suffix phobia meaning “fear of.” The word was recently added to the OED in March 2020, citing the first use in a 1997 Usenet newsgroup article titled “34 Reasons Why You Should Hate Clowns.” Douglas Harper, editor of the Online Etymological Dictionary, agrees with the editors of the OED with respect to the base word. He writes: “Coulrophobia looks suspiciously like the sort of thing idle pseudo-intellectuals invent on the internet… perhaps it is a mangling of Modern Greek klooun, meaning “clown,” which is the English word borrowed into Greek.” So from this, can we conclude that coulrophobia is the sort of bastardized word that is formed when lexicographic novices clown around with the English language?
So now that we understand the etymology of coulrophobia, let us explore a new question: how prevalent is fear of clowns? According to a survey conducted in October 2016 by Chapman University, 7.8% of Americans are coulrophobic. Another study noted “Fear of clowns is a phenomenon known for more than several decades and related to the increased use of clowns as negative characters in horror movies and TV shows.” Thanks a lot Pennywise! A poll conducted by Vox in October 2016 found that people ranked their greatest fears in this order: (1) government corruption (2) clowns (3) terrorist attack (4) a family member dying (5) climate change (6) heights (7) dying.
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For further reading: https://blogs.chapman.edu/wilkinson/2016/10/11/americas-top-fears-2016/