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A Language Expert Explains Why You Hate The Word 'Moist,' Among Others

New research spells out exactly why people are so averse to the hated word "moist." We asked the lead author of the study to interpret other disgusting words, like "gooch."
May 4, 2016, 1:40pm
Photo by Chelsea Victoria via Stocksy

Trigger warning: this article contains words that may cause you to squirm in your seat, and not in a good way. New research from Oberlin College, published in academic journal PLOS One, has confirmed, using science, what everyone already knew anyway: that people tend to have a bit of a problem with the word "moist."

Like a 2007-era Britney being hounded by the paparazzi, many would say that the word 'moist' has copped an unfair amount of attention from the press. Multiple articles and YouTube videos attempt to break down why exactly the word moist is so icky. Even venerated publications like the New Yorker have had a crack at figuring out why "people, particularly women, evidently prefer aridity." But despite these efforts, the moist conundrum has remained unsolved: until now.

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A Moist Crevice for Word Aversion: In Semantics Not Sounds examines why people have such an issue with the word moist. The study found that around 18% of people identify as 'categorically averse' to the word moist. Interestingly, women were more likely to have strong feelings about the word, scoring higher on measures of disgust towards bodily functions than men. We caught up with lead researcher, Paul Thibodeau, an assistant professor of cognitive psychology, to find out why it is that we hate the word moist so much—and what he thinks about the word "cum."

"There have been numerous theories about why moist is so divisive, and the basic theories it comes down to is that it's because of the sound, or the connotation, or both. There's also a social component, meaning that people express their distaste for the word and share that view with other people, and in so doing other people also come to find the word disgusting."

Essentially, hatred of the word becomes a cultural phenomenon, or as Thibodeau succinctly puts it, "a hipster trend." The more people in your friendship group or online express distaste for moistness, the more likely you are to develop an aversion to it. It's the same logic that drives people to claim not to like carbs.

Moist cinnamon rolls. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

If you're in the mood for a little empirical research of your own, one way of ascertaining whether the people in your life have a real problem with the word "moist" is by doing a free association test. "We asked people to just list the first word that came to mind in response to a set of words, with moist embedded in the middle of the list. The participants who later identified themselves as being averse to the word would often say 'ew' or 'gross' in response to seeing moist. And a participant who didn't report an aversion would typically list a synonym like 'wet' or 'damp.'"

At the heart of why people dislike the word "moist" is a psychological tendency to be repelled by words that connote bodily functions. "Interestingly, it's linked to a distaste towards bodily function, rather than the sexual connotations of the word." Other words that commonly resulted in aversive responses include "puke", "phlegm," and "vomit," suggesting that people have a problem with the dribbly, mucus-filled substance of life itself, rather than actual sexual acts.

I threw a few of my most non-favourite words at Thibodeau to get his take. First off is a word few welcome, whether in life or in bed: "flaccid." "I'd say it's the sexual connotation and the suggestion of impotence that causes the aversion there. Also, that particular set of vowels, and the ending in the hard consonant could be a contributing factor, absolutely."

Ditto the word "cum." It's all about the "strong sexual connotation, specifically of a bodily fluid," in this case. Because, if you hadn't already figured it out—people don't tend to like certain bodily fluids (you don't need a PhD to figure that one out). Munch? "It sort of has a weird feel at the end of the word in your mouth, plus the sexual connotations obviously." Gooch? "Well, that's kind of a pejorative". Slurp? "There's a taboo associated with slurping behaviour which probably drives that aversion more strongly, plus there's a hard stop consonant at the end of the word."

Like cilantro or Donald Trump, the word "fuck" is divisive. "Fuck is one of the words—alongside 'pussy' and 'horny'—where people expressed both strong positive and negative connotations." Does this mean, deep down, that we're all really weird about sex? "Yeah, you could probably say that."

Meanwhile, if you're unsure how you or your partner feels about the word "fuck," why not try a free association exercise next time you're engaging in some dirty talk?