Monday, May 16, 2011

Is arachibutyrophobia for real?

On page 55 of the 2005 book, The Everything Health Guide to Controlling Anxiety, Diane Peter Mayer claims that:

“Arachibutyrophobia is the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of one’s mouth! Though this fear sounds absurd, people with this phobia can become distressed in the same way that someone with the fear of spiders does. Though seemingly unique, for this phobia to be named, a number of people have had to report the fear as a problem.”

I don’t think this phobia is real. First, the word is an incomplete description with arachi (ground nut) and butyro (butter) but not palate (roof of the mouth). Second, when I tried looking it up in three databases over at Boise State University: Health Source:Nursing/Academic Edition, Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection, and PsychINFO I couldn’t find anything. There were hundreds of references for claustrophobia, but none for arachibutyrophobia.

The word also never shows up in PubMed, the huge online medical abstract database from the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Conversely, “peanut allergy” is real and serious; it shows up 428 times in Pubmed. So, I think arachibutyrophobia is even less useful than glossophobia, the alleged term for fear of public speaking.

Where did it come from? When I looked up the word arachibutyrophobia in Google Books, I found it in two books from 1979: The Psychology of Being Human, by Zick Rubin and Elton B. McNeil - where it was preceded by the phrase “would you believe” and the novel Dance Time by by Beverly Jablons.

In the November 1981 Saturday Evening Post it showed up on page 18 - in the caption of a comic about Scrabble. In May 1982 it showed up in a Peanuts comic, where Sally Brown first defined it and then proclaimed that it:

“...may be a beautiful excuse for not going to school some day.”

The word also showed up in 1982 on a poster for an American Library Association public relations campaign:

“What is arachybutyrophobia? Have a question? Call your library!”

William F. Buckley, jr. was well known for using erudite language. In his Notes and Asides column in the February 13, 1987 issue of National Review he pontificated that:

“...The point here raised - When is it okay to use an unfamiliar word? When is it not okay? - is endlessly argued, yet even so, fresh insights are occasionally minted. One of these, I think, was Dwight Macdonald’s distinction, made in his marvelous survey of Webster’s Third for the New Yorker (March 10, 1962), between unusual words (okay), and words that ‘belong in the zoo section of the dictionary’ (not okay). I should think most people would agree, for instance, that ‘arachibutyrophobia’ would be an example of the latter...”

The cover story for the April 2, 2001 issue of Time magazine was Fear Not. It mentioned how online lists of phobias were growing absurdly and griped that:

“It's one thing to invent a word like arachibutyrophobia, another thing to find someone who's really afraid of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth.”

So far the only people I’ve found who seem to be serious about providing therapy for arachibutyrophobia are at Change That’s Right Now. For $147 they’ll sell you a home study program, and for $2,497 they’ll provide a customized program with a specialist.

If you really are troubled by arachibutyrophobia there is a much less expensive solution. Put a layer of pickle slices on top of the peanut butter layer in your sandwich. Either bread and butter pickles or dill pickles will work. If you’re also phobic about pickles, then try banana slices.

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