The ‘moist’ word — why we avoid words we dislike saying

What do the words moist, phlegm, panties, vomit, crevice, and slacks all have in common? Turns out they’re all capable of evoking intense distaste in the mouths of many people. This new linguistic phenomenon is known as word aversion.

People for many years have participated in word rage. For example, whenpeople hate on a word because of its pop culture reference (swag, cool, bling) or because it’s essentially useless (that, got, like) or because it’s not used in the right context (awesome, epic, irony). Nearly every person expresses some sort of idiosyncrasy regarding word rage—mine for example is got—several other words provide a more concise and conclusive meaning than got, and well, quite frankly, it makes people sound like a redneck.

Differentiating between word rage and word aversion is tricky at first and altogether difficult to explain. Mark Liberman a linguist professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has pioneered word aversion describes it as, “A feeling of intense, irrational distaste for the sound or sight of a particular word or phrase, not because its use is regarded as etymologically or logically or grammatically wrong, nor because it’s felt to be over-used or redundant or trendy or non-standard, but simply because the word itself somehow feels unpleasant or even disgusting.”

Ok so what exactly does that mean? Well word aversion evokes a revulsion akin to nails on a chalkboard or the creepy crawly sensation of a spider crawling on you or when you find a hair in your food – once you’ve already started chewing. Yeah, none of this sounds pleasant whatsoever. Luckily for people like myself, word aversion is irrelevant, yet a surprisingly large number of people, women specifically encounter this. 

Moist, moist, moist… Some of you right now are cringing and silently writhing inside. Moist tops word aversion charts. No one really knows why moist specifically is so repugnant, but linguists believe it may be because of mouthfeel, emotion, memory, or the sound. Mouthfeel is the way it rolls off the tongue which can be either good or bad (personally I enjoy niche, idiosyncrasy, goober, über, and superfluous). Sometimes it’s a memory or emotion associated with the word, like the time you shook said dude’s pasty, phlegmy, mucus encrusted, moist hand who lives in his mom’s basement across the street, bleh. For others it’s simply the sound of the word, words such as, suck, puke, lick and a variety of R-rated words are avoided due to their harsh nature.

Word aversion is a linguistic anomaly. Linguists are unsure if word aversion began hundreds of years ago or if its recent twenty minutes of fame is due to social media. Moist made a guest appearance on the hit TV show, “How I Met Your Mother” on VH1 they referred to men who used the word moist as undateable, the food section in the Huffington Post selected five alternative words to use instead of moist, and there are even entire Facebook pages dedicated to word aversion. 

Unfortunately, because word aversion is a recent topic among linguists there is little evidence and research to support word aversion as “real” thing. What research exists though is promising. Natasha Fedotova, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, developed an experiment that more closely examines people’s distaste for trigger words. Fedotova used the word rat written on a plate served with a Big Mac to identify if people would eat the Big Mac when directly influenced by the word rat. As it turns out people were less likely to eat the part of the food that touched the word rat on the plate.

Mark Liberman from the University of Pennsylvania conducted a research project to see if the word moist was averted prior to the invent of social media. Liberman took 50 well represented authors and found that moist occurred 6.34 times per million words. What’s really interesting about this study though is that four authors never once used the word and all of them were female – Gertrude Atherton, Jane Austen, Fanny Burney and Mary Andrews. This provides substantial and significant evidence considering each wrote around 2.5 million words in their careers, suggesting these authors did indeed have a real aversion to the word, especially when considering the odds indicate a 0.007-0.18 chance this happened at random.

For those who are still reading this article and had no aversion to any words mentioned, consider yourself lucky. To those who winced more than once, I leave you with this: The squabs crawled out of the crevice full of crud to fly through the cornucopia of slacks and panties to reach the navel of the ocean, a moist, humid island. 

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