At this point in any discussion about language, someone usually pops his head above the parapet and says something to the effect of, “Calm down, language changes, and besides, it’s all about communication anyway.” This is true, and far be it for me to discourage lingua Anglica’s virtuous flexibility. But my complaint here is not so much about the changes in words’ meaning and use as it is about language that exists simultaneously in two states. “Phobia” has a clinical definition that is universally understood. It also has a colloquial — primarily political — usage that is not. The trouble is that the two uses do not coexist in separate, hermetically sealed arenas. The colloquial use has not become wholly divorced from the original use.
For Dave Minthorn, this is problematic because it results in copy that is “not quite accurate.” It’s a little more serious that that. We cannot have fruitful political discussions if we don’t know what we’re talking about or if we shut down our interlocutors at the first hurdle. Granted, this is a symptom as much it is a cause. But there are good reasons to remove barriers from our discourse, and I would applaud the Associated Press for recognizing that “phobia” is often an inappropriate descriptor. Perhaps Franklin Delano Roosevelt got it slightly wrong. What we have to fear is less fear itself, and more the prospect of losing the ability to talk about fear.