Words have the power to inform, embolden, and inspire. But very few have the power to send a cold shiver up your spine quite like the word “moist.” Thanks to a new piece of research, scientists might have uncovered what makes this word so uncomfortable to hear.
First of all, you’re not alone if you find the word aversive. The study, recently published online in PLOS One, found that around 18 percent of people have a “categorical aversion” to the word “moist.”
Paul Thibodeau, a cognitive psychologist from Oberlin College, considered three different hypotheses for why the word makes so many people’s skin crawl. These possible explanations were the sound of the word, the word's connotation, and the social transmission of the idea that the word is disgusting.
Within a series of five experiments, Thibodeau investigated American English-speaking participants' opinion of the word “moist,” among other words. These included words related to bodily function (such as phlegm, puke, and vomit), clusters of words related to sex (such as f*ck, horny, and p*ssy), and words that sounded similar to “moist” (such as foist, hoist, and rejoiced).
His study found that people who said they were averse to the word "moist" often pointed to the sound of the word as the source of their disgust. People who weren’t averse to the word said it was its connotations to sex. However, people who didn't like the word had no problem with similar-sounding words.
The study found that people who identified as categorically averse to “moist” also found words such as “phlegm” and “vomit” more aversive, although not words such as “vagina,” “horny,” or “penis.” This suggests that the word's association with bodily fluid is a strong reason for why it is so gross to so many people.
The researchers also found a social element to people's aversion to the word “moist.” They showed one group of participants a hilarious video by People Magazine (below) that had “the sexiest men alive” saying the word “moist” in an purposely cringe-inducing and awkward context. Another group watched a “control” video that showed people saying “moist” to describe the taste of cake. People who watched the video with the word being said in a socially cringe-worthy context later expressed more disgust for the word. This suggests that our perception of the word is strongly tied to how those around us also perceive it.
Due to these findings, the study concluded that our uncomfortable reaction to the word stems from our natural disgust of bodily functions. Importantly, this is strongly reinforced by social cues.
While understanding this horrifically awkward word is important, there is a greater point to the study. As Thibodeau explains, the study hopes to understand how we process emotional words, as opposed to neutral words, and how this is affected by our external environment.
“Disgust is adaptive. If we didn’t have an instinct to run away from vomit and diarrhea, disease would spread more easily," writes Thibodeau. "But is this instinct biological or do we learn it? Does our culture shape what we find disgusting? This is a complex and nuanced question. Significant work is needed to answer it definitively. But the present studies suggest that, when it comes to the disgust that is elicited by words like 'moist,' there is an important cultural component – the symbols we use to communicate with one another can become contaminated and elicit disgust by virtue of their association with bodily functions.”