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Hate the word ‘moist’? It’s because of the meaning, not the sound

“Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon thanking moist for being “the worst word ever.”

I had no idea that there was so much hatred for the word moist, until I heard somebody (I’ve forgotten who) discussing it on television a few months ago.

Really? I thought. It seems like such an innocuous word.

Apparently, many, many people think otherwise. In 2012, New Yorker readers voted moist their most “un-favorite” word. A few years earlier, subscribers to the Visual Thesaurus did the same. There’s even an “I hate the word moist!” Facebook page with more than 3,200 followers.

And last year, “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon sarcastically thanked moist for being “the worst word ever.”

“I think I speak for all Americans when I say we don’t want you as a word anymore,” he said.

Several theories

But why, exactly, do people have such a strong aversion to this particular word? Does its phonological properties — the way it sounds — make it inherently unpleasant, or does the word have some kind of unpleasant connotations?

Or could it be, as some cognitive scientists have proposed, that speaking the word engages facial muscles in ways similar to facial expressions of disgust?

Last year, Oberlin College cognitive psychologist Paul Thibodeau decided to investigate this phenomenon with a series of experiments. What he and his colleagues discovered may not be the final, um, word on the matter, but it’s kind of intriguing.

The findings also may have implications for how we judge and categorize the sounds of other people’s voices, particularly the accents of people with low socioeconomic status.

Not about sound

Amazingly (to me), about 20 percent of 400 participants in one of Thibodeau’s experiments reported having an aversion to the word moist. In fact, they equated hearing the word, according to Thibodeau and his co-authors, to “the sound of fingernails scratching a chalkboard.”

But the reason for the aversion had little to do with the way the word sounds.

“If the sound of the word really is the cause of people’s aversion to ‘moist’ then we might expect that moist-averse people would rate words with similar phonological properties as aversive as well,” the researchers write. “In fact, we found no such pattern. Moist-averse participants did not rate ‘foist,’ ‘hoist,’ or ‘rejoiced’ as more aversive than non averse participants.”

Those similar-sounding words also create similar facial-muscle positions, thus eliminating that theory as well.

All about meaning

So what did the study find was behind the strong aversion to the word moist?

Jim Davies, an associate professor of cognitive science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, (who was not involved in the study) explains the results in an article published last week on the website Nautilus:

People found “moist” most aversive when it follows an unrelated, pleasant word, such as “paradise.” There seems to be a contrast effect going on here. “Moist” seems bad when following “paradise” but not when following a really negative word, like a racial slur. “Moist” also didn’t seem so unpleasant when it followed words related to food, such as “cake.” In contrast, it provoked the most negative reactions when preceded by overtly sexual words (use your imagination). These results show that reminding people of certain meanings of “moist” can affect one’s disgust reaction to it.

Further analysis showed that “moist”-averse people also tend to dislike related words, such as “damp” and “wet,” showing further support for the idea that it’s the meaning, not the sound, of the word that’s setting people off. “Moist”-averse people also tended to have more general disgust reactions to bodily functions, suggesting that the problem is the connotations of bodily functions and sex.

Broader implication

Almost 40 percent of the people in the study who didn’t like the word moist attributed their dislike not to the word’s connotations, but to its sound.

Davies wasn’t surprised by this finding, for he says it happens with accents, too. Research has shown, he points out, that people tend to believe “there’s something inherently low-class sounding [and aesthetically unpleasing] about the accents of people who are less well-off. … [Yet] in one study that exposed Americans and Canadians to different British accents they were unfamiliar with, they couldn’t guess with any accuracy which ones belonged to people in the upper classes and which ones to people in the lower classes.” 

Prejudice against the word moist is victimless, Davies writes, but not, unfortunately, prejudice against accents, which “can increase the oppression of social groups.”

“People try to hoist their own status by foisting their classist language biases on others,” he adds. “And this is something that shouldn’t be voiced or rejoiced.”

You can read Davies’ article on the Nautilus website. Thibodeau’s study was published in the Proceedings of the 36th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, and can be read in full online (PDF).

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Doug Gray on 06/15/2015 - 10:10 am.

    words words words

    “Moist” is my word du jour. Don’t like “newspaper,” dreadful tinny sort of word.

  2. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 06/15/2015 - 03:07 pm.

    It’s the sound for some and not for others

    I know someone who has two “un-favorite” words. “Moist” and “slacks.” As you can imagine, the two together are most unpleasant in many ways for her.

    Anyway, there are words that have unpleasant sounds to some people. While “moist” might have a meaning that people find disgusting, for some people it is definitely the sound. I don’t think that rhyming words can capture the combination of the letter “m” with “oy” and “st.” Personally, I find the words “yummy” and “tummy” disgusting, but not “delicious” and “stomach” or “belly” despite similar meanings. It’s the sound, and maybe more specifically the context of the sound. That is, the terms “yummy” and “tummy” and most disgustingly the phrase “yummy yummy in my tummy” are used often with a voice reserved babies and adults who enjoy baby talk. I am most definitely one of them.

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