Usage Problem Tending to induce claustrophobia; uncomfortably confined or crowded: a claustrophobic little room.
Usage Note: Clinically speaking, claustrophobic refers to an abnormal tendency to feel terror in closed spaces. But like other terms used to describe psychological conditions (narcissistic and schizophrenic, for example), claustrophobic has been applied more loosely in general usage over time. At first it referred to any kind of temporary feeling of being closed in or unable to escape (I felt claustrophobic in that tiny room). Then it became common to use it to refer to any kind of space that might make a person feel such sensations (The staff members are jammed into a nest of claustrophobic offices). This latter usage is unacceptable to 74 percent of the Usage Panel, implying that claustrophobic should be used only to describe a psychological state. Nevertheless, this usage is well established, and it follows a tendency to combine adjectives with nouns according to a progressively looser interpretation of the relationship between the two. For example, the phrase topless swimsuit came to be followed by topless dancers, which led in turn to topless bars, topless districts, and topless ordinances. By the same token, a room that induces a particular emotion may be described as sad or cheerful without objection, and there seems to be no reason for drawing the line at calling it claustrophobic.