I am trying to understand the meaning of the word xenophobia. A simple Google search gives the following: "dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries". The majority of the definitions I have found online revolve around hate, racism, dislike, etc. Few of them also revolve around fear, which one could argue that is somehow related to prejudice. Wikipedia states: "Xenophobia is the fear or hatred of that which is perceived to be foreign or strange". Another definition I have seen is "unjustified fear of an 'other'".

The world xenophobia originates from the Greek word Ξενοφοβία which is a combination of the words "ξένος" and "φοβία". The former means "foreign(er)" or "strange(r)" while the latter means "fear". As you can see, none of the two words has anything to do with hate or dislike.

Based on the above one could say that xenophobic is a person who is afraid of foreigners or different cultures or different "things". But this does not mean that this person hates them or dislikes them. He/she is just afraid of them consciously or unconsciously.

However, nowadays people use the word xenophobia when they talk about hate, dislike, or racism. As I explained above, even most dictionaries focus on hate/dislike/racism instead of fear, which has a completely different meaning.

Here are my questions now:

  • Is any of my above statements wrong?
  • What is the correct/original meaning of the word xenophobia?
  • Why most people use this word to express hate and/or racism?
  • What is the real difference between racism and xenophobia?
  • What is the right word one should use to describe a person who is afraid (but not hate or dislike) of foreign/strange/different cultures/people/things consciously or unconsciously, justifiably or unjustifiably?


In regards to my last question: I guess I am looking for a word like arachnophobia but for humans or cultures. To my understanding, arachnophobia is the irrational and extreme fear of spiders, but it doesn't mean that you hate them or dislike them. One can be afraid of spiders because he/she was bitten by them many times, but at the same time admire them for a number of reasons (anatomy, evolution history, colours, etc). Alternatively, one can be afraid of them only in the thought that they can bite her/him, but at the same time admire them.

Thanks in advance.

  • 4
    Duplicate in a sense of How did phobia ever come to mean hatred? Don't fall victim to the etymological fallacy. – Laurel Jun 12 at 3:19
  • I always figured it was a fear of Greek philosophers. – Hot Licks Jun 12 at 3:21
  • Please link to and attribute references. And it would be reasonable to do more research yourself here. CED has 'fear or extreme dislike ...', and Collins, RHK Webster's, and AHD echo this (AHD even adds 'mistrust' into the melting-pot). Wiktionary lists in the order (1) fear (2) dislike, ODO doesn't mention fear, while Macmillan and M-W have 'fear and hatred / dislike ...' . Bottom line:(a) the word 'xenophobia' is ill-defined and needs to be used with care; if one subsense (eg the 'hatred' aspect) is intended, this needs pointing out. (b) Your question (2) seems to indicate that ... – Edwin Ashworth Jun 12 at 10:17
  • you aren't aware that the belief that the 'proper' meaning of an English word is the one it had when it was first 'accepted into the lexicon' (whatever that meant in the days before the OED; it's not even totally clear today) is considered an error. The misconception is known as the 'etymological fallacy'. The 'correct' default meaning of a word is the sense listed first by non-historic (essentially, not the OED, which lists senses in historical order) dictionaries, whose editorial panels research usage frequencies. Obviously, they sometimes get different results. That's life, AstrOne :) – Edwin Ashworth Jun 12 at 10:22
  • Perhaps those people who consider that the 'original Sanskrit (etc) meaning' is the 'correct' sense of a word snaffled into English might think a bit more deeply and appreciate that the word may have changed meaning (lexical shift is a widespread phenomenon) in Sanskrit before the loan occurred. 'We should do it as it was done in BCE xxxx' always has to set an arbitrary date, and it can be as arbitrary as 'When ah were a lad' or some other famous date in history. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 12 at 10:30

The answer to your question depends on your views on what constitutes a reason to use an expression. This is a normative question and beyond the scope of this forum.

But, if your stance is -- as your question seems to suggest -- that current use of Graecisms ought to be guided by ancient meanings (Greek words were freely imported in the past; who is to say that this is now impossible?), then the answer is yes. Xenophobia is a modern invention. There is no occurrence in the Greek corpus (TLG) of ξενοφοβία, which would have meant fear not hatred of strangers (or guests). There is, however, as a dictionary entry for μισοξενία,

μῑσο-ξενία , ἡ,

hatred of strangers or guests , LXX Wi.19.13.

So, if you are so inclined (let no descriptivo-dogmatist tell you that this is wrong), you should not say workoholic but ergomaniac, not xenophobic but misoxenist (one nurturing misoxenia or misoxeny; cf. misogyny).

Those who speak of the so-called etymological fallacy are themselves guilty of the naturalistic fallacy, the belief that things' being a certain way constitutes a reason for them to be that way.


My theory is that xenophobia entered English through the EU's widespread use of "xenophobia" as the official translation for the German word Ausländerfeindlichkeit, which literally translates as "antipathy to foreigners" but I would normally call "anti-immigrant sentiment". I'm a German-to-English translator and so am biased in this respect, but I started learning about xenophobia about 20 years ago when I was training to be a conference interpreter and one of my professors dredged up a lot of EU speeches on Ausländerfeindlichkeit and insisted on us calling it "xenophobia".

Of course, this is just my personal experience.

  • 1
    The EU which was created in 1993? "Xenophobia" the word is about 100 years old. – Laurel Jun 12 at 21:07
  • Sorry, that was confusing. I was referring to the relatively recent uptick in the use of "xenophobia" as a synonym for "anti-immigrant sentiment" in English-language media outlets. – DE-EN-Lang Jun 13 at 22:36

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