“It sounds icky” doesn’t cut it with science
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Surprisingly, word aversion is fairly common. Words like “crevice,” “slacks,” and “luggage” cause similar reactions to “moist,” though to a much lesser degree. So what is it about “moist” specifically that is so grating to human ears? Psychologist and assistant professor Paul Thibodeau published a study this past April that examined the root cause behind this specific trigger.
According to Scientific American, Thibodeau and his team asked participants to judge 29 words based on six specific qualities. Among those qualities were how often they used the word, what negative or positive associations they connected with it, and how exciting or arousing it was. All 29 words either had phonologically similarities to “moist” or semantic ones—that is, they either sounded alike or had similar sexual or bodily connotations.
Four hundred participants and five separate experiments later, Thibodeau found that people hate “moist” largely due to its bodily associations. Surprised? If so, you’re likely unbothered by semantically similar words like “wet” and “damp,” which particularly irked the “moist”-hating crowd. Predictably, “phlegm” and “puke” didn’t rank so well in the word popularity contest, but then again, how can you blame two words with mental imagery that strong?
Though there is something almost poetic about moist when you squint your eyes and view it from a distance. The way you have to pucker your lips to say it and focus on the bacteria haven within your own mouth deserves some credit. It definitely has more character than “joist” or “hoist,” two words that sound like the etymological equivalent of 1950s pod people. Yeah, I’d even argue “moist” has some grit.
Love it or hate it, “moist” is here to stay (if only because we’re not going to stop eating cake anytime soon).