A few years ago the New Yorker ran a social media campaign asking what word should be deleted from the English language. Nominations ranged from the political (Obama) to the superfluous (actually) and from the expression of hyperbole (awesome) to an outdated word for trousers (slacks). Intriguingly, the most popular suggestion – the so-called “runaway un-favourite” – might surprise a few people and especially those who enjoy baking.
Psychologist Paul H. Thibodeau from Oberlin College in the US has taken it upon himself to delve deeper. His amusingly titled research paper published recently in PLoS One, “A Moist Crevice for Word Aversion”, has made a case study of “Moist” – the word that the New Yorker found people most love to hate.
Thibodeau asked hundreds of volunteers recruited online in the US to rate how aversive they found various words, including moist. Verifying the results of the New Yorker campaign, he found 20 per of them disliked this specific word. The people that were averse to “moist” gave it a 24 per cent higher unpleasantness rating than people that were not averse to it; to put this into context, this was a similar difference in how aversive people rated “fuck” compared with “delicious”.
Thibodeau tested several possible reasons for moist’s unusual unpopularity by seeing what other words were unpopular among the moist-haters. One idea is that people are averse to the word “moist” because of how it sounds. If true then people should also be averse to similar sounding words like “hoist” and “foist”, but they weren’t. This isn’t too much of a surprise given that the sounds that make up a language tend to be random, apart from a smattering of onomatopoeic words (words that convey sounds) like “splash”.
Another clue comes from the observation that “moist” can be very good in some contexts, such as when it describes the texture of the slice of cake we’ve just been served, but can be very bad in others, for example when it refers to the condition of the armpit of the person crammed next to us on the London tube. So, perhaps the word “moist” is seen as aversive because there is conflict in many people’s minds between these simultaneous strong positive and negative connotations.
Thibodeau tested this possibility by assessing how people rated “moist” on a 5-point positivity scale (from “Not at all positive” to “Very positive”) and also on a similar 5-point negatively scale (from “Not at all negative” to “Very negative”). In fact, “moist” tended to be rated around the middle of both scales rather than being very high in both as the conflicting connotations explanation would require.
Yet another possibility is that “moist” is aversive because it brings to mind unsavoury associations, such as sexual words or words connected with non-sexual bodily functions. This is actually the most promising explanation because people who were averse to the word “moist” also tended to be averse to bodily function words like “phlegm” or “puke”. But note, these same people were not usually averse to sexual words like “horny” or “pussy” suggesting that their aversion to the word “moist” was driven not by sexual prudishness but a dislike of more mundane bodily functions.
Other intriguing insights come from when Thibodeau asked people to explain their dislike of the word “moist” – whether it was the sound, the meaning, or both. Most often people indicated it was the sound of the word, at odds with the earlier finding that “hoist” and “foist” were not unpopular. That people averse to the word “moist” tended to misappropriate the source of their aversion to the sound of the word may indicate a general tendency for us not to notice when disgust colours our opinions.
On the evidence of this psychological case study of the word “moist”, aversion to certain words is unlikely to be due to the word sound even though people may mistakenly suggest otherwise. This is another example of a psychology research finding contradicting “common sense”. There was also no evidence that word aversion arises from ambiguous and conflicting word connotations. It all came down to semantics – it was the meaning of the word and its associations with other words that underlay the negative evaluation. That aversion to the word “moist” was correlated with aversion to certain revolting bodily functions, like coughing up phlegm and vomiting, suggests that we are most likely to be averse to words that are linked to unsavoury associations.
Marketeers might want to take note, especially brands that use English names for products on sale in non-English speaking countries. Customers might be wary of Soup For Sluts instant noodles, for example, or Pee Cola fizzy drink and Deeppresso instant coffee!
Thibodeau, P. (2016). A Moist Crevice for Word Aversion: In Semantics Not Sounds PLOS ONE, 11 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0153686
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Post written by Richard Stephens for the BPS Research Digest. You can read more of Richard’s work in his critically acclaimed popular science book, Black Sheep The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad, available from all good book stores and online. Richard is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Keele University and Chair of the Psychobiology Section of the British Psychological Society.
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