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.

Dictionary definition of the word 'moist'.

Courtesy of Google

The George Saunders story “Escape From Spiderhead,” included in his much praised new book Tenth of December, is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. The sprawling, futuristic tale delves into several potentially unnerving topics: suicide, sex, psychotropic drugs. It includes graphic scenes of self-mutilation. It employs the phrases “butt-squirm,” “placental blood,” and “thrusting penis.” At one point, Saunders relates a conversation between two characters about the application of medicinal cream to raw, chafed genitals.

Early in the story, there is a brief passage in which the narrator, describing a moment of postcoital amorousness, says, “Everything seemed moist, permeable, sayable.” This sentence doesn’t really stand out from the rest—in fact, it’s one of the less conspicuous sentences in the story. But during a recent reading of “Escape From Spiderhead” in Austin, Texas, Saunders says he encountered something unexpected. “I’d texted a cousin of mine who was coming with her kids (one of whom is in high school) just to let her know there was some rough language,” he recalls. “Afterwards she said she didn’t mind fu*k, but hated—wait for it—moist. Said it made her a little physically ill. Then I went on to Jackson, read there, and my sister Jane was in the audience—and had the same reaction. To moist.”

Mr. Saunders, say hello to word aversion.

It’s about to get really moist in here. But first, some background is in order. The phenomenon of word aversion—seemingly pedestrian, inoffensive words driving some people up the wall—has garnered increasing attention over the past decade or so. In a recent post on Language Log, University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman defined the concept as “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.”

So we’re not talking about hating how some people say laxadaisical instead of lackadaisical or wanting to vigorously shake teenagers who can’t avoid using the word like between every other word of a sentence. If you can’t stand the word tax because you dislike paying taxes, that’s something else, too. (When recently asked about whether he harbored any word aversions, Harvard University cognition and education professor Howard Gardner offered up webinar, noting that these events take too much time to set up, often lack the requisite organization, and usually result in “a singularly unpleasant experience.” All true, of course, but that sort of antipathy is not what word aversion is all about.)

Word aversion is marked by strong reactions triggered by the sound, sight, and sometimes even the thought of certain words, according to Liberman. “Not to the things that they refer to, but to the word itself,” he adds. “The feelings involved seem to be something like disgust.”  

Participants on various message boards and online forums have noted serious aversions to, for instance, squab, cornucopia, panties, navel, brainchild, crud, slacks, crevice, and fudge, among numerous others. Ointment, one Language Log reader noted in 2007, “has the same mouth-feel as moist, yet it’s somehow worse.” In response to a 2009 post on the subject by Ben Zimmer, one commenter confided: “The word meal makes me wince. Doubly so when paired with hot.” (Nineteen comments later, someone agreed, declaring: “Meal is a repulsive word.”) In many cases, real-life word aversions seem no less bizarre than when the words mattress and tin induce freak-outs on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. (The Monty Python crew knew a thing or two about annoying sounds.)

Jason Riggle, a professor in the department of linguistics at the University of Chicago, says word aversions are similar to phobias. “If there is a single central hallmark to this, it’s probably that it’s a more visceral response,” he says. “The [words] evoke nausea and disgust rather than, say, annoyance or moral outrage. And the disgust response is triggered because the word evokes a highly specific and somewhat unusual association with imagery or a scenario that people would typically find disgusting—but don’t typically associate with the word.” These aversions, Riggle adds, don’t seem to be elicited solely by specific letter combinations or word characteristics. “If we collected enough of [these words], it might be the case that the words that fall in this category have some properties in common,” he says. “But it’s not the case that words with those properties in common always fall in the category.”    

So back to moist. If pop cultural references, Internet blog posts, and social media are any indication, moist reigns supreme in its capacity to disgust a great many of us. Aversion to the word has popped up on How I Met Your Mother and Dead Like Me. VH1 declared that using the word moist is enough to make a man “undateable.” In December, Huffington Post’s food section published a piece suggesting five alternatives to the word moist so the site could avoid its usage when writing about various cakes. Readers of The New Yorker flocked to Facebook and Twitter to choose moist as the one word they would most like to be eliminated from the English language. In a survey of 75 Mississippi State University students from 2009, moist placed second only to vomit as the ugliest word in the English language. In a 2011 follow-up survey of 125 students, moist pulled into the ugly-word lead—vanquishing a greatest hits of gross that included phlegm, ooze, mucus, puke, scab, and pus. Meanwhile, there are 7,903 people on Facebook who like the “interest” known as “I Hate the Word Moist.” (More than 5,000 other Facebook users give the thumbs up to three different moist-hatred Facebook pages.)

Being grossed out by the word moist is not beyond comprehension. It’s squishy-seeming, and, to some, specifically evocative of genital regions and undergarments. These qualities are not unusual when it comes to word aversion. Many hated words refer to “slimy things, or gross things, or names for garments worn in potentially sexual areas, or anything to do with food, or suckling, or sexual overtones,” says Riggle. But other averted words are more confounding, notes Liberman. “There is a list of words that seem to have sexual connotations that are among the words that elicit this kind of reaction—moist being an obvious one,” he says. “But there are other words like luggage, and pugilist, and hardscrabble, and goose pimple, and squab, and so on, which I guess you could imagine phonic associations between those words and something sexual, but it certainly doesn’t seem obvious.”

So then the question becomes: What is it about certain words that makes certain people want to hurl?

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.

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.

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