Science of words: Acrophobia or Vertigo?



 It’s amazing how people identify and relate with a word for the wrong reasons and for a different meaning altogether, just because somewhere someone has used it in some context. And this phenomenon continues for ages. Interesting isn’t it?

Fear of heights: is it Acrophobia or Vertigo? #WordPlay #AlfredHitchcock Click To Tweet

I was changing my profile picture on Facebook. It was a selfie from the Smoky Mountains where Desh and I were sitting on the Sky Lift chair, going upwards towards the station on the mountain. We chose this option because it was so much more exciting than the regular cable car. It is open (just a metal seat where two people can sit) and you can experience the cold air (brrr, chilly air sounds perfect!), the thrill of going up the mountain and the excitement of experiencing the whole thing out in the open. It was so wonderful and taking a selfie was the most obvious thing to do. Finally, today I got the time to change the picture. When my husband commented on it, I was teasing him because though he is smiling in that picture I know he has fear of heights and its only when he used the word acrophobia in his comment that I realised that people rarely use it. Instead they use the word ‘vertigo’ to explain it.

And what an incorrect usage it is! Vertigo means something completely different. It is a common form of dizziness when a person feels that they or the objects around them are spinning or moving when they are actually not. I faced this problem a few times and I know that it worsens when the head moves, but it is nowhere close to acrophobia which is defined as an extreme or irrational fear of heights, especially when one is not particularly high up. Now that we have definitions and explanations out of the way, let’s come to the funny part! Do you know why people began associating the fear of heights with the word vertigo? Think think!! If you don’t get to the right answer I am going to spill the beans anyways.

The culprit is the 1958 American psychological thriller film directed and produced by Alfred Hitchcock. The film was based on the 1954 novel D’entre les Morts (From Among the Dead) by Boileau-Narcejac. In the film, the main lead – James Stewart who plays former police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson, is forced into early retirement because of an incident in the line of duty that caused him to develop acrophobia and vertigo. It was the first film to utilize the dolly zoom, an in-camera effect that distorts perspective to create disorientation, to convey Scottie’s acrophobia. And as a result of its use in this film, the effect is often referred to as ‘the Vertigo effect.’ There you go! Acrophobia got re-christened vertigo for centuries to come. I wonder if anyone does use the word acrophobia to suggest its real meaning these days. Classic case of misuse or perhaps misapplication of the word!

Actually, we have numerous such examples in our daily life too which have continued and will go on for time immemorial. One blazing example is Amul which to date means butter! And Xerox which means photocopy. Though ofcourse these are associated more with brand names than just being confused for a word with a different meaning altogether. But then, thanks to the Hitchcock movie, even Vertigo became a brand name!

Have you had any such experiences?


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