Moist. For many people, it’s just another word. For some, it’s impossible to hear without recoiling in horror. You may not even be comfortable reading it, in which case we apologize for what’s to come. Word aversion is a real thing, and it extends much further than an adjective to describe something that’s slightly damp. But what’s the science behind it?
What is word aversion?
Word aversion describes a visceral, irrational disgust – not anger or offense – that is felt upon hearing or seeing a particular word. People report that hearing the offending word is reminiscent of nails on a chalkboard, or that the mere thought of it makes them shudder.
“Moist” is the big hitter in this field. If you’re not averse to it yourself (and again, if you are, we’re sorry) then you most likely know someone who is.
The New York Times once asked its readers to list words they had an aversion to, and browsing through the comments, it becomes clear that very few words are safe. Some of the repeat offenders are less surprising – “slacks”, “loin”, “panties” – but you’d be forgiven for concluding that you could choose any word and find someone, somewhere, who loathes it.
A few years earlier, in 2013, the Guardian newspaper in the UK did a similar exercise with its readers. The hatred for “moist”, at least, appears to reach across the Atlantic, but it seemed a lot of commenters had difficulty separating their distaste for the meaning or use of a word from an aversion to the actual word itself.
That’s one of the tricky things to unpack about this question in general. It’s really difficult to separate the emotional connotations of the word or our irritation at the way it’s used from a visceral reaction to the word itself. Many people report annoyance with the overuse of the word “like”, for example, or the tendency to start sentences with “So…” – that does not mean that they’re truly averse to these words.
The reason why words like “moist” and “slacks” are so interesting is that they are semantically neutral – they’re not taboo words, or slurs of any kind – and yet they evoke an almost primal avoidance response in a certain subset of people.
What’s behind word aversion?
A study in 2016, published in the journal PLOS ONE, represented “an initial scientific exploration into the phenomenon of word aversion,” according to its author. Once again, our old friend “moist” reared its ugly head. “Indeed,” the author wrote, “readers who find the word ‘moist’ aversive may experience some unpleasantness in reading this paper.”
While there was no shortage of theories among the general public as to why they found words like “moist” and “crevice” so unappealing, the study sought to take a more rigorous approach to assessing just how common word aversion is among the American public, and what makes a word aversive in the first place.
Some of the results were surprising. For example, the study found limited evidence that it’s the sound of the word “moist” that people find offensive. For most of the participants, it seemed the main source of their aversion to the word was its association with bodily functions because other words in a similar vein – such as “phlegm” – also tended to bother them.
However, commenting on the findings in the same New York Times article that called upon readers to list their own word aversions, neuroscientist David Eagleman suggested that it was too soon to completely discount the sound of the word as a factor.
“There appears to be this relationship between phonological probability and aversion,” said Eagleman, who has himself conducted research into word aversion. “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.”
Another factor that can’t be ignored, and which was mentioned in the 2016 study, is that of social contagion. Pop culture is awash with running jokes about people hating the word “moist”, in comedy shows and stand-up sets for example. This likely explains why so many people continue to recoil from the word, according to linguistics professor Jason Riggle, who spoke to Slate in 2013.
“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. So, to what extent is it really some sort of innate expression that is independently arrived at, and to what extent is it sort of socially transmitted? Disgust is really a very social emotion.”
Riggle also suggested that it would be particularly interesting to study whether bilingual people, writers, and others who work with language on a daily basis are less likely to experience word aversion, but highlighted that there was a surprising lack of scholarly work on a topic that garners such broad public interest.
Since then, research like the 2016 study has tried to redress that balance. So, what’s the latest?
Where are we now?
In a recent preprint, which is a preliminary version of a scientific paper that is yet to undergo peer review, Eagleman and colleague Hannah Bosley took the opportunity to unpack more of the reasons behind word aversion.
Even the most word-neutral person might struggle to get down the list of aversive words that Bosley and Eagleman included in their study. “Moist” was, of course, right at the top, with other favorites “loins”, “bulge”, and “nugget” also making an appearance. Alongside the aversive words, the researchers also collated some control words of similar length or meaning and some made-up nonsense words.
They asked 660 people to answer an online survey about their feelings about these words, with the final dataset containing the results from 244 individuals.
The suspected aversive words were indeed rated as less pleasant than their matched counterparts. However, what was really striking was that people found the nonsense words to be even worse, opening up the intriguing possibility that familiarity with a word may limit its aversiveness.
The team also found evidence that word-averse people are quicker to make links between the sound of a word and its meaning.
Scientists are getting closer to unpicking exactly what is behind that feeling of revulsion you get when the doctor prescribes an “ointment”, or a menu lists a “creamy” sauce made from egg “yolk”. In the meantime, we’re pretty sure all the jokes about “moist” will be sticking around. Rather than getting your “panties” in a bunch, though, it might be best to just try and “giggle” along.
The preprint is available on PsyArXiv.