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Don't be afraid of the duck

by Megan Anderson 2 years ago in Humanity
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Stare this one down

Artwork: Meg Ander

Bit dry in the mouth? Dizzy? Trembling? Sweating? Chills? Chest pain? Reluctant to go anywhere near a lake?

Could be you have anatidaephobia. More plainly, you dread ducks.

Actually, that’s not exactly it. Of all the phobias, this one is both especially curious and very specific. ‘Fear of ducks’ doesn’t quite do it. Anatidaephobia is not so much the fear of ducks, as the fear that a duck is watching you.

Consider your average duck: comically webbed feet, anodyne eyes, a tendency to waddle, a playful beak that curves into a shy little smile. Kind of goofy, then. Not very menacing.

But your average anatidaephobe doesn’t see it that way. For them, a duck’s eyes are judgy, its smile a pernicious sneer. As it waddles watchfully through the world, this all-seeing, all-knowing water fowl has the power to incite paranoia, terror and panic so severe it can derail a perfectly rational person, pinning them to the spot with one cool gaze.

At least, one can only imagine this was the kind of mischief skipping through cartoonist Gary Larson’s mind when he coined the term anatidaephobia in a 1988 instalment of his legendary cartoon, The Far Side. The cartoon depicts a man sitting at his office desk, looking unsettled. In the background, from a window in a nearby high rise, a lone duck looks on. ‘Anatidaephobia,’ reads the caption. ‘The fear that somewhere, somehow, a duck is watching you.’

Larson trawled the Greek language to find a suitably weighty moniker for his invention. The combination of ‘anatidae’ (ducks, geese, swans and other water fowl) and phobos (fear and dread) gave it considerable heft.

Perhaps this alone was enough to propel the cartoonist’s folly into general parlance. Perhaps some folks truly identified with its core principle. Perhaps people are easily duped and highly suggestible. Whatever the case, despite being the wholly fabricated product of an offbeat sense of humour, anatidaephobia has taken on a life of its own.

Look into my eyes before quacking

Urban mythology is peppered with accounts of trauma by duck. Or trauma by stare-of-a-duck, to be more precise. Earnest articles appraising the veracity of anatidaephobia litter the internet. The Urban Dictionary includes it without irony (but mispronounces it). Reddit forums counsel victims who find themselves confined to their bedrooms playing Goat Simulator with the blinds drawn, lest a duck should happen past and take a good long gander.

Of course, it’s ill-mannered to poke fun at phobias. Sufferers can be genuinely gripped by panic and terror, even if their response can’t be rationally explained. And quite often it can – many phobias are well documented and easy to grasp, like the fear of heights (acrophobia), the fear of spiders (arachnophobia), the fear of blood (hemophobia) and the fear of adolescents (who doesn’t have ephebiphobia?).

But Gary Larson’s wry cartoon – right up there with his ‘Cow Tools’ and ‘Car!’ for their ripple effect on the popular consciousness – was doubtless a comment on the litany of fancy-named phobias whose authenticity is hard to swallow. While a level of weirdness is intrinsic to most phobias, some are just odder than others.

Among these one might count linonophobia (a fear of string), xanthophobia (fear of the color yellow) and arachibutyrophobia (fear of getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth). Phobophobia (fear of phobias) feels like straight up overreach.

There is some middle ground in this quagmire of improbability. A reasonable person might find omphalophobia (fear of belly buttons) to be a fair response to one of the human body’s least elegant offerings. Likewise, the cruelly named hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia (fear of long words) is not impossible to get one’s head around (one’s tongue, quite another matter).

Certainly it’s not a stretch to believe that ornithophobia is real. Fear of birds – ducks, say – can result from a lakeside squabble over bread in childhood, or an aversion to the sound of flapping wings or avian screeching. When Alfred Hitchcock unleashed The Birds in 1963, ornithophobes were validated afresh.

But fear of being gazed upon by a duck? That’s just Gary Larson fooling around.

Does anatidaephobia pass the duck test?

Not really.

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck that, even if it happens to glance your way, means you no harm at all.


About the author

Megan Anderson

Loves a yarn. Draws a bit. Sings in the yard. Spells things the Australian way.

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