Why Do People Hate Certain Words?

Language and how we use it.
April 1 2013 5:41 AM

Why Do We Hate Certain Words?

The curious phenomenon of word aversion.

(Continued from Page 1)

Riggle thinks the phenomenon may be dependent on social interactions and media coverage. “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,” he says. “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.”

And in an era of YouTube, Twitter, Vine, BuzzFeed top-20 gross-out lists, and so on, trends, even the most icky ones, spread fast. “There could very well be a viral aspect to this, where either through the media or just through real-world personal connections, the reaction to some particular word—for example, moist—spreads,” says Liberman. “But that’s the sheerest speculation.”

Words do have the power to disgust and repulse, though—that, at least, has been demonstrated in scholarly investigations. Natasha Fedotova, a Ph.D. student studying psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, recently conducted research examining the extent to which individuals connect the properties of an especially repellent thing to the word that represents it. “For instance,” she says, “the word rat, which stands for a disgusting animal, can contaminate an edible object [such as water] if the two touch. This result cannot be explained solely in terms of the tendency of the word to act as a reminder of the disgusting entity because the effect depends on direct physical contact with the word.” Put another way, if you serve people who are grossed out by rats Big Macs on plates that have the word rat written on them, some people will be less likely to want to eat the portion of the burger that touched the word. Humans, in these instances, go so far as to treat gross-out words “as though they can transfer negative properties through physical contact,” says Fedotova.

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Product marketers and advertisers are, not surprisingly, well aware of these tendencies, even if they haven’t read about word aversion (and even though they’ve been known to slip up on the word usage front from time to time, to disastrous effect). George Tannenbaum, an executive creative director at the advertising agency R/GA, says those responsible for creating corporate branding strategies know that consumers are an easily skeeved-out bunch. “Our job as communicators and agents is to protect brands from their own linguistic foibles,” he says. “Obviously there are some words that are just ugly sounding.”

Sometimes, because the stakes are so high, Tannenbaum says clients can be risk averse to an extreme. He recalled working on an ad for a health club that included the word pectoral, which the client deemed to be dangerously close to the word pecker. In the end, after much consideration, they didn’t want to risk any pervy connotations. “We took it out,” he says. 

As editor of New York magazine in the 1990s, Studio 360 host and novelist Kurt Andersen was well known for his disdain of certain words. He created a “Words We Don’t Say” document that set the tone for his staff. Among the words New York writers couldn’t use in their stories: celeb, dubbed, and maven. But Andersen says that he maintains no word aversions of the creep-out variety. “When I was young I hated fart, and still rarely say it, but it’s no longer in the aversion/revulsion category,” he says. “I disapprove of the currency of poo among adults, and would never use it, although I don’t mind poop, and fully embrace—so to speak—shit.” He likes moist, too.

New Yorker staff writer David Grann is in the same boat. “I don’t think I’m too conscious of any such aversions,” he says. The same goes for Liberman, Riggle, Fedotova, and Tannenbaum—all people who specialize in working with the written word on a daily basis. Could it be that people who read and write for a living are less likely to freak out when someone says slacks or crevice or panties?

“It’s a fascinating hypothesis, and I’d love to see it tested out,” says Riggle. “You could even extend that by asking if bilinguals are less likely to have” word-aversion issues. “Because one of the things that the study of bilinguals shows us is that bilinguals are much better at knowing deep down that the connection between a word and its meaning is arbitrary. Linguists and writers and people who think about language all the time might be another population that has a more deeply ingrained notion of the arbitrariness of the meaning-word connection, which would maybe be some sort of inoculation against this.”

But like so much about word aversion, we simply don’t know. That’s because there is a somewhat surprising dearth of formal, scholarly research on the subject.

“As far as I know, there’s been basically none,” says Riggle. “There are no studies, and this would be a great topic of study.” Liberman, too, would love to have scholarly answers to scores of questions related to the word-aversion phenomenon. “My feeling is that we’ve learned about as much as we’re going to learn from the kind of self-reports that come back when you ask people, ‘What are the words you hate?’ ” he says. He wants to know, for instance, the extent to which word-aversion reactions are similar to or different from responses to various tastes or smells or sounds. Also, was this phenomenon around 100 years ago, or 300, or 1,000? And might there be differences in word-aversion­ reactions experienced by English speakers and non-English speakers? On an even more fundamental level, how pervasive is the phenomenon? Does word aversion plague 3 percent of the population or 30 percent or more? “It looks to me like it’s probably 10 or 15 percent,” Liberman says, “but I have no idea. As a pop culture phenomenon, there’s still quite a bit to learn.”

One person who won’t show up in that 10 or 15 percent: George Saunders. “Moist is fine,” the writer says, and he has no problems with other seemingly mundane words that oddly gross out large swaths of the English-speaking population. “I literally can’t think of a word that makes me sick. Well, except creditcarddeclinedsir.”

Is there a certain word that drives you up the wall or turns your stomach? Let us know in the comments. The most interesting and noteworthy submissions will be featured in a follow-up post on Brow Beat.

Matthew J.X. Malady is Slate’s Good Word columnist. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjxmalady.

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