A lot of people don’t like the word “moist.” Several Facebook groups are dedicated to it, one with over 3,000 likes, New Yorker readers overwhelmingly selected it as the word to eliminate from the dictionary, and Jimmy Fallon sarcastically thanked it for being the worst word in the English language. When you ask people why this might be, there is no shortage of armchair theory: that there’s something about the sounds involved, that it puts your face in a position similar to the facial expression of disgust, or that it reminds people of mold or sex.
Psychologist Paul Thibodeau and his colleagues ran a recent study to sort it out (pdf). They gave participants a set of words and asked them to rate how, whether, and to what degree, each word made them uncomfortable.
Twenty-one percent of the people in the study had an aversion to the unloved word. It turns out that the sounds don’t have much to do with that effect. Similar-sounding words, such as “foist,” did not generate the same reaction. Because those words also put your facial muscles in similar positions, we can also discount the disgust-facial expression theory.
So what about the meaning? Well, people found “moist” most aversive when it follows an unrelated, pleasant word, such as “paradise.” There seems to be a contrast effect going on here. “Moist” seems bad when following “paradise” but not when following a really negative word, like a racial slur. “Moist” also didn’t seem so unpleasant when it followed words related to food, such as “cake.” In contrast, it provoked the most negative reactions when preceded by overtly sexual words (use your imagination). These results show that reminding people of certain meanings of “moist” can affect one’s disgust reaction to it.
Further analysis showed that “moist”-averse people also tend to dislike related words, such as “damp” and “wet,” showing further support for the idea that it’s the meaning, not the sound, of the word that’s setting people off. “Moist”-averse people also tended to have more general disgust reactions to bodily functions, suggesting that the problem is the connotations of bodily functions and sex.
So if it’s really the meaning that makes it sound disgusting, why would people think the disgustingness came from the sound of the word? Thirty-nine percent of those people attributed their “moist” aversion to the sound of it (and linguist Ben Zimmer conjectures that the “oi” diphthong may be unappealing). They think there’s something inherently unpleasant about the sounds made when you say it.
This happens with accents, too, where people will often think that the lower classes have accents that are aesthetically harsh, vulgar, or unpleasing, independent of social conditioning and historical preferencesthat there’s something inherently low-class sounding about the accents of people who are less well-off. But studies have cast serious doubt on this too. In one study that exposed Americans and Canadians to different British accents they were unfamiliar with, they couldn’t guess with any accuracy which ones belonged to people in the upper classes and which ones to people in the lower classes. Through association, we come to find the very sound itself distasteful, just as the bodily meaning of “moist” can infect our perception of the sound.
For the word “moist,” this effect is victimless. Unfortunately, prejudice against accents can increase the oppression of social groups. People try to hoist their own status by foisting their classist language biases on others.
And this is something that shouldn’t be voiced or rejoiced.
Jim Davies is an associate professor at the Institute of Cognitive Science at Carleton University in Ottawa, where he is director of the Science of Imagination Laboratory.