I was at the pub the other night, having a couple drinks with friends, when talk inevitably turned to everyone’s most and least favourite words, as you do.
You know how it is – you’re at the pub, with loads of friends, and you start talking about your favourite words. We’ve all been there, it’s all anyone talks about, people just love semantics, I can’t remember the last time I went out and we didn’t talk about our favourite words.
When I say pub, I mean my flat. And when I say friends, I mean the windowless walls of my basement flat. I wasn’t at the pub, I’m not Susie Dent, and I don’t have friends anymore because they’ve become so fed up with me berating them about the word ‘moist’ they eventually abandoned me. Instead, the conversation took place between myself and a mug of watered-down imported lager.
But it turned out my lukewarm companion also disliked the word ‘moist’, and I just couldn’t figure out why so many people hate it.
It seems to have become the go-to word when people talk about least favourite words (which, I’ve been assured, happens all the time). But have these people actually thought for themselves and formed their own opinions when considering the modern lexicon, or did they just hear someone on TV say they didn’t like the word and think ‘yeah that’s me that is’.
My increasingly-flat friend however, persuaded me I wasn’t in fact infallible, and persuaded me that, maybe, there’s some science behind people’s aversion to the M-word. So, we looked it up, because nowadays there’s a study about everything and because PhD students have to do something with their days, right?
Luckily for me, Paul H. Thibodeau, from Leiden Univeristy in the Netherlands, published just such a study, called A Moist Crevice for Word Aversion: In Semantics Not Sounds. And I must admit, after reading that title I had doubts about the word myself.
Thibodeau’s study conducted a ‘scientific exploration into the phenomenon of word aversion by investigating its prevalence and cause’. Basically – what’s with moist’s bad rep? Do ‘hoist’, ‘foist’, ‘mist’ or ‘most’ also send shivers down people’s spines, or is it the mumbling of ‘moist’ specifically?
The study involved five experiments which, when conducted incrementally, were designed to get down to the nitty gritty of why people seem to hate this word.
Firstly, participants were asked to judge words that were similar in meaning to ‘moist’ (damp, wet, etc); words that commonly elicit disgust (e.g. fuck, phlegm, vomit), and words phonetically similar (hoist, foist).
Experiments two and three then used a series of free association and surprise recall tests to ‘track underlying psychological processes’ that would uncover deeper reasons behind disliking the word.
Unpopular theory: ppl bash on milk for the same reason they don’t like the word “moisture” and for the same reason they don’t like nickelback – because everyone else does so it’s a safe socially acceptable statement
— Ghastly (◕,,,◕) (@Ghastly) March 20, 2019
Using a sample group, experiments four and five aimed to ‘induce an aversion’ to ‘moist’, to see whether the bad rep the word has is ‘transmitted socially or through a process of conscious deliberation’ – i.e. did they hear someone else say they disliked the word and thought ‘yeah that’s me that is’.
Or, as someone in experiment two said: ‘I’m not sure I did [think ‘moist’ was aversive] until other people pointed out that they did. Then it started to bother me as well’.
@JeffWeber11 You've probably heard 'moist' is my least favourite word, along with 'scrofula' and 'gusset'…
— Susie Dent (@susie_dent) November 13, 2014
Thibodeau found that, when it came to being ‘moist averse’, it was not the ‘phonological properties’ of the word (how it sounds) that people disliked, but the associations it brings up – specifically, associations with bodily functions.
The study also, strangely, found the aversion to ‘moist’ was more prevalent ‘among younger, more educated, and more neurotic people, and is more commonly reported by females than males’.
[Perhaps the neurotic people among us – myself included – have a severe aversion to anything moist? Wet dishes, damp clothes, the pavements outside, for example? Living in a basement flat with no windows, ventilation or plumbing means I fight a daily battle with rising damp, after all. But then, I don’t mind the word ’employment’, despite my severe aversion to that…]
In a bid to address the imbalance between male and female aversions to the word ‘moist’, People magazine made a short film of ‘sexy men’ saying the word which, I can only assume, worked wonders in making more people hate the word, to even up the numbers of course.
You can watch it here, sound on or off, your choice:
It’s become fairly popular to dislike the word moist – it’s popped up on TV shows like How I Met Your Mother and Dead Like Me, while some Facebook groups have racked up almost 20,000 members simply through their shared hatred of the word.
Jason Riggle, a professor in the department of linguistics at the University of Chicago, told Slate how word aversions are similar to phobias, evoking physiological reactions as well as psychological.
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.
It seems then, that it’s not the sound of the word, but more what it conjures in the individual that makes them hate ‘moist’, an affliction that affects as much as 20 percent of the population according to Thibodeau’s research.
Essentially, there’s nothing wrong with the word itself, and anyone’s aversion to it is subjective, a product of nature, your own opinion, or seeing something on TV and thinking ‘yeah that’s me that is’.
After all this research I was feeling parched, my watered-down imported lager was still in my hand, so I knocked it back and moistened my orifice. Lovely stuff.
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