Greek gives us a useful combining form for creating words about hate, but we might not be using it as often as we should. Miso- comes from misein, meaning “to hate,” and it gives us a handful of highfalutin words for low-brow antipathies, like these:
- misogyny: hatred of women
- misogamy: hatred of marriage
- misology: hatred of argument, reasoning, or enlightenment
- misoneism: hatred of change or innovation
When the miso- prefix comes before a vowel, the o is dropped, and we get words like
- misanthropy: hatred of humankind
- misandry: hatred of man
This is not to be confused with the more common prefix mis-, which comes from Old and Middle English and can mean “wrong or wrongly” (misdiagnosis, misadvise), “the opposite of” (mistruth), or just “not” (misknow). And neither mis- nor miso- is etymologically related to misery or miserable, which are both from the Latin miser “miserable.”
In this era when expressions of hatred toward one group or another seem to be part of every evening newscast, miso- seems ripe for neologism. Such new words would both expand our vocabulary and perhaps offer us more accuracy in our descriptions. Words have power, and the more precise the word, the more powerful it becomes.
In a moment of uncommon depth, the now-defunct Twitter parody account Tweets from God (referring to Morgan Freeman’s role in the movie Bruce Almighty) once tweeted, “I hate the word homophobia. It’s not a phobia. You are not scared.” I think this holds true for many of the so-called phobias that we write and talk about every day.
Especially as white supremacist and fascist groups become more emboldened, homophobia, transphobia, and Islamophobia, to name a few, have practically become euphemisms that smooth the edges of true motivation — which is hatred — and put the burden of change on the backs of the victims.
We would scoff at the use of words like gynophobia, afrophobia, or negrophobia to describe the mistreatment and oppression of women and people of color; we call them misogyny and racism. Yet somehow we have accepted the language of fear to describe similar mistreatment and oppression — driven by a similar impetus — of other groups.
Certainly fear does exist, and it is a motivator. We’ve all felt and been driven by the fear of that which is not part of our “normal,” but that is an everyday fear of the new and unknown. Again, we all feel that, and as adults, we learn to accept it and go about our lives. And although that fear isn’t what motivates the sustained and institutionalized disdain we’ve been seeing around the globe, we still couch discussions of racism and hate in the language of fear. Behind those words is the subtle idea that if we could reason with people and make, say, homosexuality less frightening, we could ultimately wipe out homophobia and have a happier, more tolerant , more accepting world.
But of course that idea is patently ridiculous.
Now may be the time that we stop using language to dance around the issues. As you see these so-called phobias appear in your work, it may be time to pause and consider what those words truly imply about fear, hatred, and motivation. We editors always aim for accuracy in language, so it is part and parcel of our position to ask ourselves if these phobias are accurate words. And if not, what words hit home more truly? Do the words even exist, or is it time we deliberately craft new ones that mean what we need them to mean, not only so they are clear today, but so that history records for future generations the true source of our current strife and divisiveness.
[UPDATE 8/15/18: Sarah Bronson has pointed me toward Twitter user Eb the Intolerant (@EbThen), who has been curating a thread all about the problems with and possible replacements for -phobia, including -misia a suffix with the same root as the prefix miso-. Within this thread is a great example of the problem with -phobia. Eb notes the appearance in her Twitter timeline of the phrase “suffers from homophobia” and how the language creates a false link between bigotry and mental illness. Thank you Sarah and Eb for pointing out -misia, which I had unintentionally overlooked.]