We Know You Hate ‘Moist.’ What Other Words Repel You?
By JONAH BROMWICH
Moist. Luggage. Crevice. Stroke. Slacks. Phlegm.
How did those words make you feel?
Certain everyday words drive some people crazy, a phenomenon experts call “word aversion.” But one word appears to rise above all others: “moist.” For that reason, a recent paper in the journal PLOS One used the word as a stand-in to explore why people find some terms repellent.
“It doesn’t really fit into a lot of existing categories for how people think about the psychology of language,” the study’s author, Paul Thibodeau, a professor of psychology at Oberlin College, said of moist. “It’s not a taboo word, it’s not profanity, but it elicits this very visceral disgust reaction.”
A little less than a quarter of the approximately 2,500 unique subjects tested in Mr. Thibodeau’s five experiments over four years had trouble dealing with any appearance of the word.
When asked to react to moist in a free-association task, about one-third of those people responded with “an expression of disgust,” Mr. Thibodeau said. Almost two-thirds of those who later reported an aversion were so bothered by “moist” that they could recall its inclusion among a set of 63 other words — an unusually high rate.
The peer-reviewed study attempted to explain why moist had become the linguistic equivalent of nails on a chalkboard for some people.
Words that sound similar — including hoist, foist and rejoiced — did not put off participants in the same way, suggesting that aversion to the word was not based on the way it sounds. But people who were bothered by moist also found that words for bodily fluids — vomit, puke and phlegm — largely struck a nerve. That led Mr. Thibodeau to conclude that for those people moist had taken on the connotations of a bodily function.
It has long been acknowledged that many people are cursed with moist phobia. In 2007, a linguistics professor from the University of Pennsylvania, Mark Liberman, wrote about moist in exploring the concept of word aversion. In 2012, the word came up again, after The New Yorker asked readers which ones they would eliminate from the English language. Mr. Thibodeau’s study cites People magazine’s 2013 attempt to have some of its “sexiest men” make “the worst word sound hot!”
But Jason Riggle, a linguistics professor at the University of Chicago, said the excessive focus on moist might have made a broader understanding of word aversion more difficult.
“Moist has become such a flagship word for this, and the fact that so many people talk about it now makes it harder to get a handle on” word aversion more generally, he said.
That may help explain why other recent studies on word aversion, unlike Mr. Thibodeau’s, found a close link between a word’s phonological properties — its combination of sounds — and people’s reactions.
David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine whose lab has conducted its own experiments into word aversion over the past year, found that an unusual combination of sounds in a group of made-up words was more likely to put people off than several other factors. A study at Colby College last year also suggested that a word’s phonological properties could repel people.
Dr. Eagleman suspects that word aversion is similar to synesthesia, the blending of senses in which an aural phenomenon, such as a musical note, can trigger a visual or even an emotional response. He suggested that the process through which a specific combination of sounds evokes disgust might be similar.
“There appears to be this relationship between phonological probability and aversion,” he said. “In other words, something that is improbable, something that doesn’t sound like it should belong in your language, has this emotional reaction that goes along with it.”
Dr. Eagleman said that his lab’s experiments were a prelude to neuroimaging that could investigate how the brain responds when faced with aversive words. But in the meantime, it might help to compile a broader list of words that certain people cannot stand.
So here’s a question for you: Forgetting all things moist for a second, what other words (without explicit sexual, scatological, racial or taboo connotations) do you find repulsive? And we don’t mean the merely annoying (like “literally”) or obnoxious (like “synergy”), but words that are viscerally repellent.
Name them, and tell us why they disgust you in the comments section. Feel free to recommend words already listed by others.
[Editor’s note: I find nothing wrong with the word moist. A serviceable word. On cake batter boxes, mixes are promoted as moist and even “Super Moist.” I think people are confusing moist with dank and need a dictionary or dictionary application.]