Hydrated and delicious

« previous post | next post »

A food writer recently tried to find an effective euphemism for moist, in order to avoid the associated word-aversion problems (Hate Moist? You're Not Alone", Huffington Post 12/10/2012):

At HuffPost Taste, the word moist comes up a lot in our work and, we have to admit, it nauseates us. It's an occupational hazard we can't seem to avoid. We inevitably come across the word as positive descriptors for cakes and cookies every day. Sometimes, we even have to write it (like right now, which makes us feel a little dirty). [...]

Because we can no longer use a word to describe a perfectly cooked cupcake that can also be interpreted to mean clammy and water-logged, we've come up with 5 great alternatives.


The five proposed euphemisms (not dry, hydrated, good crumb, spongy, divine) are not even a little bit great, in my opinion. William Ian Miller, The Anatomy of Disgust, 1998, explains why the problem is a difficult one to solve:

The qualities of consistency and feel provide the bulk of our lexicon of disgust. Thus the oppositions squishy vs. firm, moist vs. dry, sticky vs. non-adhering, scabby vs. smooth, viscid vs. free flowing, wriggling and slithering vs. still. Add further certain qualities without easily paired opposites, for which the opposite is simply the absence of the trait: oily, filmy, curdly, gooey, slimy, mucky. All these qualities deserve some special comment. For one thing, it is easier to come up with words to describe disgusting sensations when these are moist, viscid, pliable, than when they are dry, free flowing, or hard. For every disgusting scabby or crusty thing there are tens of disgusting oozy, mucky, gooey, slimy, clammy, sticky, tacky, dank, squishy, or filmy things. and even the scabby and the crusty borrow their disgustingness from the fact that they are formed from the coagulation of viscous substances. Note how hard it is to find non-pejorative terms to describe some of these consistencies, primarily those which are characteristics of what I earlier called life soup. Just how is it possible to name slime or indicate something that slithers without the term taking on a heavy negative moral and aesthetic baggage? [emphasis added]

After all, most of moist's semi-synonyms are complete non-starters: a food writer is unlikely to use words like damp or soggy as positive descriptors of baked goods.

A related perspective comes from a 1987 Fry and Laurie comedy skit, "Lavatory humour", 1987, in which "moistness" gets the biggest laugh:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Fry: … what's meant by lavatory humour is
saying things like
bottom
ploppies
Laurie: Number twos
guppies
Fry Moistness.
Nipple.
Laurie: Nipple.
Fry: You see?
Say words like that and it's giggle, giggle, giggle.

But word aversion is as much about sound as about meaning, as "Eustacia" observed in a comment on The Perfect World forum, 6/2/2003 (quoted in "Ask Language Log: The moist panties phenomenon", 8/20/2007). She is explaining why she hates baffle, cornucopia, and squab:

I really just don't like those words. I don't dislike their meanings, but phonetically they conjure up all sort of unpleasant textures.

(That whole 1814-comment thread is worth reading…)

In thinking about word aversion over the years, I haven't come up with anything much to add to what I wrote in response to a reader's question in 2007:

The words in question are not taboo in the culture at large. Women seem to be more more likely to have this reaction, though perhaps they are just more likely to talk and write about it.. Sounds and sound associations may play a role (the diphthong usually spelled 'oi', certain consonant clusters, etc.); semantic associations may play a role (slimy textures, lower-body garments like panties and slacks); but the process seems pretty random and erratic, also hitting on random-seeming words like hardscrabble, baffle and tissue. Nevertheless, certain specific words (such as moist and panties in English) seem to be frequent victims. This lexical specificity could be because the process is more deterministic than it seems, or because of cultural transmission that doesn't reach the threshold of creating new lexical taboos, but does create a widely-shared aversion to particular words well above chance levels.

Anyhow, moist seems to have the optimal combination, in today's English-speaking world, of whatever the crucial word-aversion features may be. Last spring, over at the New Yorker, moist won first place in a sort of reader poll of lexical usage peeves and word aversions (all mixed up together, since this is the New Yorker, after all). "Words came in, marked for death", New Yorker 4/23/2012:

Last Friday, we débuted “Questioningly,” a Twitter-based game show. In the first installment, we asked readers to propose a single English word that should be eliminated from the language. [...]

Words came in, marked for death. Popular objects of dissatisfaction included “awesome” and “epic” (pointlessly inflationary), “phlegm” and “fecund” (pointedly ugly), “bling” and “swag” (self-conscious slanguage), “impacted” and “efforting” (boardroom blather), “like” and “but” (only ever taking up space), and “irregardless” and “inflammable” (are they even words?). That was how the pack travelled, in the main. [...]

In the end, there was a runaway un-favorite: “moist.” People, particularly women, evidently prefer aridity.

Note that semi-synomyms like wet, damp, dewy, humid, soggy didn't even make the list.

The use of moist in English-language publishing seems to have risen from around 6 per million in 1810, to a peak just before WW I of about 13 per million words, and a subsequent fall, back to about 6 per million. I have no idea what that means, if anything:

Partial word-aversion blogography:

Language Log posts: "The moist panties phenomenon", 8/20/2007; "Don't say 'tin' to Rebecca, you know how it upsets her", 8/20/2007; "Morning mailbag", 9/10/2007; "The long moist tail", 10/6/2007;  "From cringe to offense", 10/25/2007; "Moist aversion: the cartoon version", 8/27/2008; "Word attraction", 5/13/2009; "Word aversion and attraction in the news", 5/19/2009; "The 'moist' chronicles, continued", 8/8/2009; "Six words", 7/23/2010; "Toot chuckle lil' kidnap Snooki", 2/23/2011; "Hated words", 7/1/2011.

Some other citations: "Words you hate", The Perfect World, 6/2/2003; Ben Zimmer, "Which Words Do You Love and Which Do You Hate?", Word Routes 5/19/2009; David Pescovitz, "Moist, and other words people dislike", BoingBoing 5/19/2009; Mark Peters, "Why do we hate the word moist?", Good 8/1/2009; "Movies, Easy Listening, Ugly Words", Wait Wait…Don't Tell Me! 8/8/2009.

Cartoons — Rob Harrell's Big Top, from 2003:

And xkcd, from 2011 (another mixture of word aversion and usage peeving):

Share:



51 Comments »

  1. europhile said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 8:51 am

    Gusset, pantyhose.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 9:02 am

    I really like the word "moist" and all that it connotes when it comes to delicious food like luxury cupcakes. But in Sinology, we have a special problem with the word, because, just as we have Taoists, Legalists, and so forth among early Chinese thinkers, we also have Moists, who are followers of Master Mo (Mo Zi). I cringe every time I see that word in Sinological writings. Thus we have Moist texts, Moist thinkers, Moist philosphers, Moist school, Moist logic (that's quite different from "fuzzy logic"!), Moist traditions, Moist canons, Moist criticism, and so forth. The odd thing is that Master Mo's brand of thinking was anything but wet. In fact, it was quite DRY!

  3. Adam said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 9:03 am

    "Hydrated" could be too wet. The best cookies are "optimally hydrated".

  4. Joe Green said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 9:04 am

    There's only one sensible response to this: use the (perfectly unobjectionable) word "moist" as often as possible. This will be my New Year's Resolution. Moist, moist, moist, moist, moist. Cakes are moist. Humus is moist. My brow is moist. The air is moist. Yum. There you go. Numb now?

    [(myl) Compare ladykatya's comment, quoted in the original "Ask Language Log" post:

    My sister also hates the words 'moist' and 'panties'. I, however, find it HILARIOUS to walk behind her at the mall whispering over and over "moist panties. moist panties. moist panties". She turns this lovely shade of red as she gets more upset with me. ;)

    So the whole world is your sister, it seems.]

    Hardscrabble? Efforting? Are these even words? And what's with the New Yorker spelling it "travelled"? Surely the U.S. spelling is "traveled"? What's going on here?

    [(myl) Hardscrabble is in all the standard dictionaries -- the OED quotes the gloss "A place thought of as the acme of barrenness where a livelihood may be obtained only with great difficulty", and gives citations back to 1804. As for efforting, it's a gerund-participle formed from a zero-derivation verb, currently found (among other places) in new-wave self-help texts, e.g.

    Keeping things simple means being willing to let go of 'efforting' -- or trying too hard. 'Efforting' blocks you from letting good things happen to you in a relationship.

    Consonant-doubling before -ing deserves a longer discussion.]

  5. Warsaw Will said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 9:59 am

    Is this aversion to "moist" an American thing? I don't think it exists in BrE. One definition in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary is: 'moist – slightly wet, often in a way that is pleasant or useful: a lovely rich moist cake'

    [(myl) What evidence do you have, other than your intuition about your own personal reactions, that word-aversion phenomena (including to moist) don't exist in Britain? The notion that things are completely different in Britain is trivially refuted, e.g. by this blog post:

    Much as I love words, there are some pieces of vocabulary that make me want to heave and knickers is one of them.  In case you’re wondering, I also have a particular aversion to moist (vile) scrummy (oh, please) blouse (it’s a shirt)   And my pet hate: twinkle (when used outside the nursery rhyme) – but I won’t go on about that again.

    Or this forum post:

    Are there any words that just make you cringe?
    I have a weird dislike of the word 'moist' - just kind of makes me shudder.

    Or this discussion in the Guardian's Books section, or this 2005 forum discussion from Sheffield, or ...

    Overall, I would be surprised to learn that there is any difference at all between the UK and the US in this respect.

    Two lessons here:

    (1) Despite what you may think, your individual intuitions and reactions do not always represent those of the linguistic community that you belong to. In fact, it's a good idea to assume that your intuitions do NOT represent those of the community as a whole, pending evidence from a survey of opinions or (even better) an examination of actual usage;

    (2) You can learn a lot about community norms by internet search -- in this case, it took me less than 15 seconds to find examples of British reactions to moist.

    ]

  6. surrogatekey said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 10:02 am

    Velvety, toothsome, eh… supple?
    Tough one (heh).

  7. Ellen K. said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 10:19 am

    Warsaw Will, if your impression is that adversion to "moist" is a general thing, I assure you we don't all dislike the word.

  8. surrogatekey said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 10:24 am

    "The qualities of consistency and feel provide the bulk of our lexicon of disgust. Thus the oppositions squishy vs. firm, moist vs. dry…"

    But then again, juicy v. dry. (at least i don't think there's a popular aversion to juicy). And "gooey" seems pretty acceptable in relation to chocolate chip cookies.

    Wonder if some of the disgust with "moist" is a carry over from strong aversions to certain contexts it's been used in. So often people mention the phrase "moist panties" when they talk about it.

  9. [links] Link salad basks in the glory of cytotoxic drugs | jlake.com said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 10:26 am

    [...] Hydrated and delicious — Language Log with a long riff on "cringe words". We all have them, and it's kind of baffling unless you share the particular cringe. For me, the nicknames "Compie" and "Lappie" for computers are cringe words. [...]

  10. bks said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 11:00 am

    http://www.newyorker.com/images/2012/12/17/cartoons/121217_cartoon_074_a16985_p465.gif

  11. Nancy Friedman said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 11:20 am

    And yet skin creams continue to be labeled "moisturizers" and continue to sell briskly.

  12. Rod Johnson said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 11:23 am

    Just as a marker for that longer discussion to come, maybe, on the tangent of consonant doubling before -ing, Michael Brame had a column in Linguistic Analysis which several times returned to that topic. I can't find it, or even any references to it, online, but my memory is that the data was so variable and discussions so given to ungrounded, easily refuted assertions that this or that style is "the British spelling" or "the American spelling" that it ended up seeming pretty arbitrary which spelling to choose.

  13. Carol Saller said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 11:32 am

    Appetizer. (Ick!)

  14. Warsaw Will said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 11:35 am

    I don't think I said anywhere that word aversion doesn't exist in the UK; you only have to look at comments to the Daily Mail to know that it does. Or witness the kerfuffle over the BBC's silly Americanisms article last year. But I genuinely wasn't aware of any widespread dislike of the word 'moist', and my comment was meant as an innocent question rather than as an assertion. I now stand (to a certain extent) corrected.

    [(myl) You've missed the point of this (and previous) posts. What we're calling "word aversion" is a completely different phenomenon from dislike of Americanisms or other sorts of usage peeves.

    In "word aversion", the reaction is not that the word is incorrectly pronounced, or is used in an inappropriate sense, or has been created by inappropriate morphological devices, or is used in an incorrect syntactic frame, or is associated with a deprecated group of people, or whatever -- rather, the reaction is that the word itself is "revolting", "ugly", "icky", "gives me the willies", "feels weird in my mouth", "makes bile crawl up my esophagus", "i feel strangely queasy at the sound or even sight of the word", etc. The people who feel this way admit freely that their reaction is "weird" and "irrational"; they often say things like "I have no idea why I feel this way", in contrast to usage peevers, who almost always have an elaborately worked out (and often false) rationalization explaining why the usage they object to is illogical, ungrammatical, redundant, or otherwise mistaken. ]

    I would suggest, however, that one blog posting (where most of the commenters seemed to get much more worked up about words other than 'moist'), an article in the Guardian where only one commenter (out of 44) mentioned disliking 'moist' (even though the journalist mentioned it three times), and a couple of forum discussions (one of which incidentally also included the comment – 'But I love the word Moist. Moist is a fantastic word!') hardly constitute an accurate picture of my "community norms" either.

    [(myl) Again, I think you need to read more carefully. The point is not that everyone is averse to moist, or even that everyone suffers from word aversion. Rather, the point is that many people have a strong, irrational aversion to particular words, apparently based partly on sound or articulation and partly on meaning, and that moist appears to be an especially common trigger. As far as I know, no one has ever done the research that would allow us to estimate what proportion of the population exhibits the word-aversion phenomenon, much less what proportion objects to moist. But there are clearly quite a few people who experience these reactions; and there's no reason to think that Britain is any different from the U.S.]

  15. Gene said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 11:53 am

    Will, I must supose that there are no moist knickers in Warsaw.

  16. Scott Schulz said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 12:43 pm

    I think I've read all of the word adversion posts here over the years, but I could have missed something, and so forgive me if these question has been covered: can something be said about the phenomena in other languages as well? Is there something going on between the proximity of the adverse words to topics of disgust wtihin a culture (bodily processes and, particularly, sexuality in our culture) and the frequency those words show up metaphorically or synonymically for other purposes in the language. For instance, wouldn't there be a greater adversion to the word "smegma" if it were a useful and common descriptor of, say, tensil strength in building and construction? Are there examples in other languages where the closeness of a common metaphorical use of a word and its relationship to areas of dsigust collide to create similar levels of word aversion? Or is the phenomena merely (as many who express their aversion) a matter of the sounds themselves. I suspect psychological repression is at the root of much of the phenomena, but what does the situation in other languages tell us?

    [(myl) These are very good questions, and I don't know the answers to any of them.

    I would find it very surprising if the phenomenon of word aversion were limited to English, though.]

  17. MonkeyBoy said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 1:08 pm

    It is one thing to note that some people have word aversions ranging from mild dislike to inducing physical symptoms of illness vs. thinking it is common. Looking at blog comments can turn up the say .00001% of women who are sickened by the word and feel strongly enough that they advocate against it. Is it really in the same league as forbidding peanut butter in a school lunch room because one student has a severe peanut allergy?

    [(myl) We certainly don't know what the prevalence of these reactions is, but I'm willing to bet a few months' salary that we wouldn't see 1,814 forum reactions from ".00001% of women" (one woman in ten million). And there are clearly some men in the group as well.]

    There are all sorts of very rare aversions that people can have. I recently read that for some people just the sight of wet bread gives them a gagging fit. Also sometimes people will try to explain their aversion which may give some insight – I recall reading a woman's complaint about the word "pantie" in an advertisement for young children's underwear – she felt it was sexualizing them.

    At what point can some of this just be written off as rare and weird neurotic behavior.

  18. OrenWithAnE said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 1:10 pm

    @Scott Schulz that was exactly my thought — that aversion to the word is transferred over from aversion to female sexual desire in general.

    [(myl) This makes sense for moist, but not for baffle, squab, meal, chunky, wedge, etc. etc.]

  19. Alan said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 1:21 pm

    This topic surprises more than anything else I have read on Language Log. I have British parents and friends and have lived all my life in Australia. I have never met anyone, nor even heard of anyone, who finds the word objectionable. Where I come from, to describe a cake as "moist" is to praise it.

    [(myl) Well, as I noted back in 2007 when I looked into a reader's question, "I've never come across it before, but a little web searching suggests that this sort of thing is pretty common".

    And with respect, you have no way to know which of the many people you've met have reactions of this kind in general, or specifically to moist, unless you asked them -- which in most cases I imagine you have not done.]

  20. SlideSF said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 1:41 pm

    Any publication that prefers "spongy" to "moist" is deluding itself. Especially if it has ever seen Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead.

  21. MonkeyBoy said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 1:54 pm

    How much can word aversions actually change a language or what is considered its "proper" register? I can think of 3 examples:

    1. Prudery where words related to sex or elimination are shunned and euphemisms or other fancy ways are used when the concept must be expressed.

    2. "ain't" – English has no 1st person present negative contraction of "be" because low class people used "ain't" for all or most of present tense.

    3. "thee/thou" – while this singular pronoun may have been dying on its own, Quakers decided that everybody was their friend and used it exclusively. Are there any actual studies showing that Quaker hatred killed off "thee"?

    All of these examples of language effect are not so much word aversion but aversion to the class of people who use the words.

  22. M.N. said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

    I think the word 'moist' sounds pretty gross as well ('chunk(s)' is another one, and — rather absurdly — 'leg'). Funnily enough, 'moisture' is basically OK, maybe because it can be more of a technical term ('moistly' is still gross, maybe even worse). I don't find the words themselves objectionable, though; I just try to avoid saying or writing them myself because I dislike them (and it's never come up in in-person conversation with anyone outside my immediate family — not that I can remember, anyway). Like, I usually say 'feet' instead of 'legs' if I can get away with it at all ("the horse has four feet", etc.).

    I happen not to like the word 'panties', either; but that's not word aversion, it's a dialect thing. I grew up calling them 'underpants'* (or 'undies' when I was really, really little), and 'panties' always struck me as something off-puttingly cutesy that someone's grandmother would say (and as a linguist, I figure it must just be "loyalty" to my own dialect — just like I'm not about to suddenly start saying 'pop' instead of 'soda', which I found "stupid" before I had a clue about linguistics). By contrast, there's nothing dialectal or reasoned in any way behind my dislike of 'moist'.

    *If I absolutely needed a more specific term, e.g. in the question "panties or thongs?", I guess I'd say 'briefs'.

  23. Jeroen Mostert said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 3:05 pm

    Interesting that someone would hate baffle and cornucopia — two words I like very much, especially cornucopia (squab I neither like nor dislike). In general, I can't think of any word I feel aversion for. I do dislike efforting and other soulless neologisms, but that's by association for the thought processes that created them, not because their sound or shape offends me. The only thing moist triggers is Throw Momma from the Train ("the night was hot humid moist sultry") and Dr. Horrible's friend.

    Wait, hold on, there's one word I find exceptionally distasteful by its sound alone, and that's vagina. I'm fine with cunt (sound-wise, of course, not conversationally) or any of the myriad euphemisms, but not the clinical term.

  24. Steve said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 3:10 pm

    I realize that I'm probably preaching to the choir, but the five proposed euphemisms are not only "not great", they are downright dreadful.

    1. Not dry: I would take this as a case of the author damning the cake with faint praise. Somewhat ironically, "not dry" suggests to me that something is somewhat dry but not completely dry, or that it is neither moist nor dry. It certainly doesn't conjure up a sense of a pleasant degree of moisture being present in the cake.

    2. Good crumb: this is odd and cryptic. I would not be certain what this means, but, if forced to guess, I would have guessed it meant that a cake's texture was pleasantly crumbly. It in no way hints at the quality at issue, which is moistness.

    3. Spongy: this connotes a porous texture, not necessarily moistness. Such a cake might also be moist, of course, and it might even probably be moist, but spongy doesn't directly convey moistness, so it fails as a substitute.

    4. Divine: this simply indicates that the reviewer likes the cake (a lot), but it provides no hint as to what particular quality is present that makes it enjoyable.

    5. Hydrated: Seriously? And the euphemisers think that "moist" could be taken to mean that something is water-logged? It couldn't, really, but "hydrated" could. If I ran across this in a food review I would think that the writer found it in a thesaurus and dropped it in without giving thought to whether it fit the context (and I would wonder why the editor let it slip through).

  25. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 3:12 pm

    But moist is surely the queen of all words?

  26. John Lawler said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 3:42 pm

    Every time the subject of moist aversion comes up (which so far it never has for me, except on the web), I am reminded of the protagonist and central viewpoint character (hero would be overstating things) of two of Terry Pratchett's recent novels (Going Postal and Making Money), whose name — real name, that is; he's a confidence man and has many names — is Moist von Lipwig.

    I doubt this is unintentional; little is in Pratchett's books. The central female character in these books is named Adorabelle Dearheart, a name that does not describe her very well.

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

    Google n-gram viewer results for the combination "deliciously moist" (maybe a decent proxy for lack of aversion?) show a decline from a 1942 peak to a 1966 low but then continued upward progress in frequency (well past the earlier peak) through the end of the 20th century. FWIW, of the first 10 hits for that combo in google books (not sorted chronologically) 8 were cookbooks and the other 2 appeared to be pornographic. I don't know if that 80/20 ratio would hold over a larger sample.

  28. Milan N. said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 4:04 pm

    I, not being a native speaker, can't judge how strong "moist" is associated with what wiktionary glosses as "Sexually lubricated (of the vagina); sexually aroused, turned on (of a woman)".I can't find this meaning taken account of in any other online dictionary (except, of course, for the Urban Dictionary), but I can imagine that such association is truly unpleasing, especially when it comes to food, a field, where "moist" seems to be used often.
    In German the respective association is so strong that when one sees a novel titled "Feuchtgebiete" (wetlands, literally moist-areas) they can make an educated guess of what it is about.

  29. Milan N. said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

    @J.W. Brewer
    This, however, could just indicate a change in the popularity of culinary prose, rather than one of actual usage.

  30. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

    Soft-porn example from google books: "They breathed a deliciously moist, balsamic breath into the air. A warm shower passed over them, but the rain was sunlit. One could see high up in the sky the whole air filled with the bright ripple of raindrops." -Thomas Mann (or, rather, someone or other who had done an English translation of the Magic Mountain early enough to have been included in an anthology published in 1950). Someone with more time than I do could track down the original German of the passage and see if it's been differently Englished by other translators seeking to avoid giving offense to the moist-aversion submarket.

  31. KWillets said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 4:45 pm

    Crumb is a technical term for the interior points of a bread or cake. If it's in good condition it will have a translucent appearance and a spongy texture.

    "Moist" is not necessarily accurate, since stale bread can have the same moisture content as fresh. The dry texture is due to starch precipitating from a gelatinous state into harder granules, not loss of net moisture.

    There don't seem to be any good words for these states, outside of chemistry books perhaps.

  32. Mr Fnortner said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 5:07 pm

    You know, if you don't like it here in English, you can leave and live in another language.

  33. Eugene said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 6:00 pm

    I suspect that this has to do with collocations as much as with characteristics of the word itself. Suppose that moist starts out neutral. We think moist ___, and the blank provides the feeling. For example, moist may be an unpleasant association if you're thinking of underwear or basements, but it has pleasant associations if you're thinking of cupcakes or towelettes.
    There's an idea for a psycholinguistics experiment: 1) What's the first word you think of when your hear the word moist. 2) Rate the word moist as positive or negative on a 1-5 scale. That would give us some idea of where the negative feeling comes from.

    [(myl) It might be more fun to look at the context of literary and sub-literary uses of moist. Thus this passage from George Eliot's "Lisa and the King":

    Yet one day, as they bent above her bed,
    And watched her in brief sleep, her drooping head
    Turned gently, as the thirsty flowers that feel
    Some moist revival through their petals steal;
    And little flutterings of her lids and lips
    Told of such dreamy joy as sometimes dips
    A skyey shadow in the mind's poor pool.

    Or this, from Henry James' The Bostonians:

    Such were the narrow views of people hitherto supposed capable of opening their hearts to all salutary novelties, but now put to a genuine test, as Mrs. Tarrant felt. Her husband's tastes rubbed off on her soft, moist moral surface, and the couple lived in an atmosphere of novelty, in which, occasionally, the accommodating wife encountered the fresh sensation of being in want of her dinner.

    ]

  34. Ted said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 6:47 pm

    I find it very interesting that the writer who prompted the original LL post identifies the two most objectionable words as "moist" and "panties," and in his response to Warsaw Will's first comment above, myl cites a British blogger who identifies them as "moist" and "knickers."

    This seems to support Scott Schulz's hypothesis that the content is really what's significant here, and the purported objections to sound, etc. are derived from unconscious post-hoc rationalizations. Otherwise, why would the phenomenon follow the dialect across these two very different words?

  35. richardelguru said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 7:19 pm

    And of course there's the incident in the defunct tv series 'Dead Like Me' when the dead teenaged daughter moves the magnetic letters on the fridge to spell MOIST: presumably to distress her mother.

  36. Albrt Vogler said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 8:21 pm

    I seem to recall that U.S. Grant named his farm Hardscrabble. I could look it up somewhere to be sure, but I'm too lazy.

  37. Joe Green said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 1:46 am

    @myl: "Hardscrabble is in all the standard dictionaries"

    Well it's not in my 1998 OED nor my 1980 Chambers (both hard copies).

    [(myl) Please grow up. The OED's publication history for this word is as follows:

    And simple web search should have convinced you that it doesn't belong in a category for which "Are these even words?" is a reasonable non-troll-like question. Whether it's a word that you know, or a word that's found in your 1980 Chambers, is irrelevant to the original discussion.]

    Longstanding US term, though it might be, it has not entered the UK lexicon, as far as I know.

    I picked it out deliberately. Although it is a word which I have never ever heard or read (to my recollection), it does immediately convey a sense of severe physical discomfort, which might be connected to people's aversion to it. Or not, given the avowed aversion to pretty neutral-seeming words.

  38. Keith M Ellis said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 4:15 am

    This seems to support Scott Schulz's hypothesis that the content is really what's significant here, and the purported objections to sound, etc. are derived from unconscious post-hoc rationalizations. Otherwise, why would the phenomenon follow the dialect across these two very different words?

    I'm ambivalent about your comment. On the one hand, my sense about these aversions is that they're more often about semantic associations, rather than phonology, than many people claim. Or, more precisely, my sense is that it's more likely such associations than not.

    On the other hand, something that's bothered me about these discussions is how often people try to argue for some simple, universal theory — that's it's "really" about the associations or "really" just phonology. Because it's just not that simple. It's certainly not that simple in general, but it's not even that simple with individual words. I feel certain that in many or most of these cases, the etiology of the negative conditioning against a particular word varies from person to person. When some person explains that it really and truly is, for them personally, just an aversion to the sound of "moist", I am willing to believe them and not presume to second guess their own attested experience. When they attempt to project their own experience onto everyone else as their explanation for a word aversion, that's something different.

    I guess most of us tend to want a grand unified theory of word aversion, but I feel certain that's not going to happen. Why do people have food aversions? Well, sometimes, it's because of negative associations and/or incidents earlier in their lives, often childhood. Other times, it's just because. Does it make sense to try to explain all food likes and dislikes, or all aesthetic likes and dislikes, on the basis of some culturally universal association, or on presumed specific childhood experiences? No, it doesn't. The same is true of word aversions.

    I'll grant, based only on my own (fallible) personal intuition, that semantic associations are more likely than other explanations, all else being equal. But that's not a very reliable guide.

  39. Chris said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 4:44 am

    @ Joe Green: "Well it's not in my 1998 OED nor my 1980 Chambers (both hard copies)."

    Hardscrabble is in the 2008 Chambers (with the annotation "Chiefly US"). The only place I have come across it is in Cormac McCarthy's novels.

  40. Robert said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 6:32 am

    I'm reminded of this
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gwXJsWHupg

    and Dennis Potter's Singing Detective. "What's the loveliest word in the English language, officer? In the sound it makes in the mouth? In the shape it makes in the page? E-L-B-O-W."

  41. Aaron Toivo said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 5:26 pm

    It is interesting to examine what associations and judgements we give to words of similar shapes. For example the diphthong /oi/ is pointed to as part of the problem with "moist"; but do the people who feel this feel the same way about joist, hoist, foist? Boisterous? Toy, joy, loyal, royal? I would speculate that fairly few do. (Join may be a counterexample.) So what about that /m/, then? I can't think of any especially pleasant-feeling words that start with it beyond possibly "mist", and of course there's mud, muck, mire, and misery. And yet, the sound also goes with mothers and enjoyment of food (mmm!). Perhaps the combination of /m/ with /oist/ does something the parts don't do by themselves, but there's no easy way to examine how. So my best guess is that semantic associations belonging to specific sounds in "moist", or pure value judgements of those sounds, are at best only part of the picture.

    There seems to be an element of randomness to all this. For example why don't we hear more complaints about how awful a word "jump" is? Three quarters of this word is the legit phonaestheme -ump, of such words as bump, lump, dump, stump, hump, rump, clump, plump, mumps, and crumple, all of which signify masses or protrusions from a surface (or, for the verb, making one) and all of which have, to my mind, a rather coarse feel to them. Which is curiously lacking in "jump" even though it may be semantically connected.

  42. Chris Waters said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 6:10 pm

    @Aaron Tovio: IIRC, the previous discussion revealed that some people do have similar feeling about words like "joist" and "hoist", while others don't. The "m" thing may be a factor as well, and likewise for the possible associations. My theory (not backed by any hard data, of course), is that moist is a sort of perfect storm of triggers.

  43. Saskia said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 2:14 am

    It's funny because the person I know who hates the word moist most, is a male.
    As for me, the word moist genuinely reminds me of delicious cake, so I love it. But I wouldn't mind if people used "divine" as a synonym. That's quite good, actually.

  44. Scott Schulz said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 11:36 am

    @Keith M Ellis I agree that there's not likely to be one universal cause of word aversion. The situation is almost certainly more complicated than that in general. But associations with other cultural areas of disgust might explain a chunk of the phenomena.

    @myl Your list of counter examples (baffle, squab, meal, chunky, wedge) is interesting. Not to go all sesquiotica (http://sesquiotic.wordpress.com/) on you, but could the folk etymology connecting "squaw" to vagina(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squaw#Claims_of_obscene_meaning) have infested people's feeling's about squab? Is an aversion to "squab" ever attested prior to the Oprah episode in 1992 which popularized the false etymology? Chunky is related to vomit via "to blow chunks". Wedge gets toward "wet" or "whet", and wet, of course, has similar associations as moist. I got nothing for "baffle" or "meal", though.

    But, of course, if these loose homonyms really were the source of the aversion, then why wouldn't people express aversion to the homonym (squaw or wet, for instance) directly? We could construct a theory of repression and transference (perhaps it's more socially acceptable to state an aversion to "squab" rather than "squaw"), but that would obviously be reaching towards the hypothesis I was trying to evidence to begin with. Which is why I'm interested in any examples from other languages and cultures where the loci of disgust might be a bit different.

  45. aka Darrell said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 7:08 pm

    Perhaps one could use "The condition formerly known as moist."

  46. julie lee said,

    December 18, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

    There is a Chinese word that's the opposite of words like "moist", "sticky", "slimy", "gooey", and that's SHUANG, 爽 and the compound QINGSHUANG 清爽, which is close in meaning. The closest English word I can think of is "clean", both in the physical and the figurative senses. One feels SHUANG or "clean/nonsticky" after a shower. One's clean-in-the-sense-of-straightforward/nonsticky/nonequivocating words can be SHUANG or QINGSHUANG or SHUANGKUAI. A food can be SHUANG or QINGSHUANG "clear-clean-nongooey/nonheavy" to the palate. One can handle or dispose of a sticky situation in a clear-clean non-messy or QINGSHUANG way.

  47. Rich said,

    December 19, 2012 @ 6:00 pm

    Something I found interesting.
    Inflammable doesn't mean 'not flammable'; it is another term for flammable.
    I would have bet money that inflammable meant 'not flammable'.
    Not everything beginning with 'In' means 'not-…'.
    A good thing too since 'moist' would be replaced by 'indry'.

  48. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: Words of the Year, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, movies | Wordnik said,

    December 21, 2012 @ 10:02 am

    [...] gave us the A to Z of the year’s worst words (speaking of which, Mark Liberman considered some not-great euphemisms for the much maligned moist) while Geoff Nunberg told us to forget YOLO and focus on big data [...]

  49. Amy Canby said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 4:36 pm

    What about toothsome?

  50. The Atlantic presents An A-to-Z Guide to 2012's Worst Words | Think CONTRA said,

    December 26, 2012 @ 12:30 pm

    [...] words year after year, and sometimes, we rail on those words (see our continued excoriation of poor oldmoist. What did moist ever do to any of us?). There are words, phrases, and coinages that end up marking [...]

  51. An A-to-Z Guide to 2012′s Worst Words – Jen Doll – The Atlantic Wire | Shanora Wen said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 8:25 pm

    [...] words year after year, and sometimes, we rail on those words (see our continued excoriation of poor old moist. What did moist ever do to any of us?). There are words, phrases, and coinages that end up [...]

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment