Why Do People Hate the Word 'Moist?' The Science Behind Word Aversion

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Why Do People Hate the Word 'Moist?' The Science Behind Word Aversion

When I hear or read the word ‘moist,’ I immediately think of the locker room at the public pool where I learned how to swim when I was a kid.

It smelled like mildew and frogs, the walls were coated in grime and hair, and it was always at least 80 degrees in there — even in the winter.

It truly was a moist locker room.

Did the first sentence of this blog post make you shudder, too? If so, first of all, I hope I haven’t already lost you, because I did some research into why this particular word makes me physically convulse. And as it turns out, I’m not alone — 20% of the population has a serious aversion to the word ‘moist,’ too.Download our free guide here for tips to become a better writer. 

In this post, we’ll continue grossly examining the collective hatred of the word ‘moist,’ as well as dig into what word aversion is all about, anyway.

Why Do People Hate the Word ‘Moist?’

A cognitive psychologist at Oberlin College, Paul Thibodeau, conducted a series of experiments to determine exactly why the heck so many people hate the word ‘moist.’ He had three hypotheses he was testing:

  1. People hate the word ‘moist’ because of how it sounds.
  2. People hate the word ‘moist’ because of its connotations to bodily fluids.
  3. People hate the word ‘moist’ because they’re socialized to believe the word is disgusting.

Over the course of the experiment, Thibodeau found that participants didn’t mind similar words, like ‘hoist’ and ‘joist,’ so that disproved the first hypothesis.

Participants who didn’t like the word ‘moist’ also didn’t like words such as ‘phlegm,’ ‘vomit,’ and ‘diarrhea’ — suggesting that a big part of why people hate the word so much is its connotations to bodily fluids (sorry — that’s another gross one for me.)

Thibodeau also showed two groups of participants two different videos: People Magazine‘s Sexiest Men Alive saying the word ‘moist’ in awkward contexts, and a video of people using the word ‘moist’ to describe delicious cake. Participants who watched the first video — of sexy men saying ‘moist’ — found it more disgusting than the participants who watched the second video — about moist, delicious cake.

So, Thibodeau’s findings concluded that our widely-shared hatred of the word ‘moist’ is due to our associations between moisture and bodily fluids — but that there’s a huge social component to it, too. And part of our hatred of the word ‘moist’ might just be because so many other people around us think it’s gross — even if they are the sexiest men alive. But put ‘moist’ in the context of a delicious dessert, and all of that might be forgotten.

Word aversion is a funny thing. I don’t have much use for the word ‘moist’ in my blog posts about marketing, but there are definitely other words I don’t like — and find myself never using if I can help it. So, what’s the deal with word aversion, and does it only apply to words that sound disgusting? Read on to learn why you hate the words you hate.

What Is Word Aversion?

Word aversion is “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.”

That definition is according to linguistics professor Paul Liberman. And basically, it means extreme dislike of a particular word — for reasons that make sense, or reasons that don’t. This isn’t a hatred of the word “nuclear” because so many people mispronounce it, and it isn’t a distaste for the word “presentation” because it brings you feelings of dread about your next board meeting. Word aversion is specifically being provoked by the word itself — and often feeling disgusted by it.

Like in Thibodeau’s experiment, there might not always be one reason why people feel the way they feel so strongly about a word — it could be the way it sounds, it could be its associations, or it could be because your friends and family hate the word, too. There’s also the possibility that that dissemination of this information — in articles like these and in viral videos — could accelerate that societal aversion to words that are talked about a lot — like the word ‘moist.’

Other words people commonly feel a strong aversion to include:

  • Ointment
  • Panties
  • Curd
  • Rural
  • Dollop
  • Slurp
  • Pulp

They’re all kind of gross, now that you think about it, right?

So the next time you have to sit down to write a blog post, think up an ad tagline, or write something on Facebook, choose your words carefully — or poll your coworkers around you to see if you might inadvertently be writing some copy that will make your audience shudder and gag.

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