Does the word “moist” make you gag?
If so, you’re not alone: A 2016 survey found that “moist” tops the list of most-hated words in the English language, and about 20% of people feel the same way as you.
Why so much disgust for this innocent-sounding word? After all, the word doesn’t have to have negative connotations. We love a moist chocolate cake, and we aim for our skin to be moisturized.
And let’s not forget about the term Ross Geller made famous on “Friends” — the “moist-maker,” which he uses to describe the gravy-soaked slice of bread in his Thanksgiving sandwich. Need a refresher from TBS? See below:
Is It About the Way ‘Moist’ Sounds?
If asked why you don’t like the word “moist,” you might say it has something to do with “mouthfeel” — how the word feels on your tongue. About 39% of people who say they do not like the word “moist” list its sound as the reason, according to one study.
If this is true, phonological awareness, or the ability to distinguish between sounds (an essential component of literacy) could be a factor in having a real, immediate and visceral reaction to the word “moist.” It would mean that phonological features of the word itself trigger a negative reaction in people.
Studies on word aversion, however, indicate there’s more to it than that. In a 2016 research study conducted by Paul Thibodeau of Oberlin College detailed below, the author discovered many interesting things — but could not find support for the idea that the sound of the word itself was a problem.
It May Relate to Disgust for Bodily Functions
In the 2016 research study published in PLoS One, cognitive psychologist Thibodeau conducted several experiments in order to test the different reactions people have to the word, and what factors might be behind those reactions.
In one experiment, he gathered together two groups of participants and showed them two different videos in which the word “moist” was used.
He showed the first group a video of the world’s “sexiest men” (as dubbed by People Magazine) saying the word. Watch this one below:
Then, he showed the second group a video in which the word “moist” was used to describe chocolate cake.
Thibodeau found that the first group reported feeling more disgusted by the word “moist” than the people who watched the baking video.
He theorized that this was in part because “moist” can have sexual connotations. And when a man who elicits desire in us or seemingly exudes sexuality says the word “moist,” it might spark that cognitive connection and make us think of anatomy or sexual acts.
But when said in reference to chocolate cake by a neutral speaker, we might make more innocent associations, and hence report feeling less “yuck” about the word.
To study this hypothesis, researchers conducted other word studies and asked plenty of questions. They found that people who hated the word “moist” the most were also more likely to hate other words, but not necessarily the ones related to sex. Instead, they had an aversion to words more strongly associated with bodily functions.
In other words, they were conflating the sound of the word and its meaning — a common-enough phenomenon when dealing with word aversion.
‘Moist’ Aversion Might Be the Result of a Viral Phenomenon
Additionally, researchers say that our hatred of this word might come down to a form of social contagion.
“Anecdotal evidence suggests that moist-aversion may be, in part, a viral phenomenon: the word has become contaminated through social and traditional media,” Thibodeau writes in his findings.
He points to the Facebook group “I HATE the word MOIST” and plot lines from shows like “How I Met Your Mother” and “The New Girl” devoted to “the comic consequences of word aversion.” He also notes that feature articles on the topic have appeared in Slate, The New Yorker and The Huffington Post, among other news outlets.
Along the same line of thought, University of Chicago linguistics professor Jason Riggle wondered, in an interview with Slate, how much of the hatred for the word is innate, and how much was “socially transmitted.”
“Disgust is really a very social emotion,” he points out.
In other words, our reactions to certain words and behaviors are based on whether those things are deemed “disgusting” in our culture. So, if we feel that everyone around hates the word “moist,” we are going to be more likely to feel that the word is disgusting too.
Riggle thinks the phenomenon may be dependent on social interactions and media coverage.
“Given that, as far back as the aughts, there were comedians making jokes about hating [moist], people who were maybe prone to have that kind of reaction to one of these words, surely have had it pointed out to them that it’s an icky word,” he says.
It’s Likely a Mix of Factors That Includes Uncommon Usage
In a 2021 research paper that is in preprint status and has not yet undergone peer review, California-based researchers David Eagleman and Hannah Bosley explore the relationship between phonology and emotion to determine if word aversion results. They note that people who are word-averse “make associations between phonology and meaning more readily.”
The researchers also used “nonsense” words to test how familiarity with words increases or decreases our aversion to them. They found that the less familiar a word was to a person and the less it sounded like other English words, the more likely they were to dislike it.
Hence, it might not just be that “moist” brings to mind gross imagery, but that we don’t commonly use the word in regular conversation and it doesn’t sound “right” to us, so we don’t like hearing it as a result. The findings show that we might be less trusting and less comfortable with the use of infrequently used words, whether it is an actual word like “moist” or a made-up word.
The two researchers say they believe that the hatred of words like “moist” is probably a mix of variables that includes phonological factors along with meaning and context.
“Aversive associations likely come from a word’s semantic content, as well as contextual information from one’s prior subjective experience of that word’s usage,” they write in their conclusion.
Sounds right to us!
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