Malady on Word Aversion in Slate

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Matthew J.X. Malady, "Why Do We Hate Certain Words?", Slate 4/1/2013:

The George Saunders story “Escape From Spiderhead,” included in his much praised new book Tenth of December, is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. The sprawling, futuristic tale delves into several potentially unnerving topics: suicide, sex, psychotropic drugs. It includes graphic scenes of self-mutilation. It employs the phrases “butt-squirm,” “placental blood,” and “thrusting penis.” At one point, Saunders relates a conversation between two characters about the application of medicinal cream to raw, chafed genitals.

Early in the story, there is a brief passage in which the narrator, describing a moment of postcoital amorousness, says, “Everything seemed moist, permeable, sayable.” This sentence doesn’t really stand out from the rest—in fact, it’s one of the less conspicuous sentences in the story. But during a recent reading of “Escape From Spiderhead” in Austin, Texas, Saunders says he encountered something unexpected. “I’d texted a cousin of mine who was coming with her kids (one of whom is in high school) just to let her know there was some rough language,” he recalls. “Afterwards she said she didn’t mind fu*k, but hated—wait for it—moist. Said it made her a little physically ill. Then I went on to Jackson, read there, and my sister Jane was in the audience—and had the same reaction. To moist.”

Mr. Saunders, say hello to word aversion.

Read the whole thing.

For those who want more, here's a list of LL posts on word aversion:

"Ask Language Log: 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
"Hydrated and delicious", 12/14/2012
"Literary moist aversion", 12/27/2012

And I have to ask: Given the thousands of academic psycholinguists, social psychologists, sociolinguists, and cultural and linguistic anthropologists, publishing hundreds of thousands of studies on topics from lexical neighborhood density in aphasia to the social construction of wine quality, why has no one ever (as far as I know) done the most basic demographic, historical, socio-cultural, developmental, or experimental studies of this curious phenomenon?

Update — Matthew has a follow-up piece, "Which Words Do Slate Readers Hate?", 3/2/2013.



27 Comments

  1. Stitch said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 10:26 am

    Ever since this issue came up in LL something's been bothering me. I hadn't thought about cake mixes for maybe 35 years or so but my memory was that they were alway advertised as "moist" or "super moist." So I checked the supermarket shelf and guess what? They still are.

  2. Cameron said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 11:54 am

    Do moistophobes shun products that are marketed as moist? That should be a relatively straightforward study to design. Cake-mix manufacturers might even subsidize such research (if they haven't already .. . .)

  3. Ellen K. said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 12:53 pm

    If it's the sound of the word that causes word aversion, are some written contexts more likely that others to bring to mind the sound of the word, and thus more likely to trigger word aversion? I can imagine their being a difference between seeing a word on a cake box versus reading it in running text.

  4. Steve said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 2:07 pm

    Funny that cake (and whether moist-aversion extends to it) should have been brought up. One of the above LL links (Hydrated and Delicious, IIRC) involved an article in which Huffington Post's food department (at least, I think that's what "Huff Post Taste" is) announced that it would henceforth abstain from describing any food product (including, in particular, cake) as moist. It further claimed that several "excellent" alternatives to "moist" existed, including hydrated, not dry, good crumb, spongy, and divine. I don't know if HPT has abided by that declaration or not. Of course, that was an example of food critics adopting moist-aversion as a practice, not of a food marketer doing so, but clearly cake is not a safe harbor for controversy-free moist usage.

  5. Andy Averill said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 2:16 pm

    Be nice to know at least whether men or women are more moist-averse.

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 2:28 pm

    It was good to see a well-known linguist quoted in the article.

    I couldn't tell whether the author has word aversions. Maybe his title, "Why Do We Hate Certain Words?", is an example of the first person plural extremely exclusive, which doesn't include the speaker.

    And just because I was frustrated for a few minutes trying to remember where I'd seen a sentence with the cut and color of the one from Saunders's story, I'm sharing that it was the last sentence of Nabokov's story "The Vane Sisters": "Everything seemed yellowly blurred, illusive, lost." (Somebody must have an aversion to "yellowly".)

  7. Ken Brown said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 2:50 pm

    Do the moist-averse also dislike "hoist" or "joist" or "Moine"?

    [(myl) In general, no -- as I understand it.]

    Insofar as this is a real phenomenon, my guess is its the concept, not the word, that causes disgust. Wet toilet paper, pussy wounds, damp clothes, poultices, rotten wood – all unpleasantly moist.

    On the other hand, leaf-litter, soft rains, treacle pudding, lover's lips – all pleasantly moist.

    [(myl) Many of the words reported to be in this category (for some people) don't fit the "disgusting concept" theory: hardscrabble, pugilist, squab, cornucopia, whimsy, toot, kidnap, .... My own guess is that in some cases the concept may be involved in starting the process that leads to the "word aversion" reaction, but there are other ways to evoke the same process, and the resulting reaction itself is entirely independent of word meaning.]

  8. Ken Brown said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 2:51 pm

    And I should have written "weeping wounds".

  9. Ø said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 3:34 pm

    pustulent

  10. David Morris said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 4:51 pm

    I was spending a moment or three thinking about what "pussy wounds" actually are, and I decided I'd rather not know.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 4:58 pm

    Different strokes for different folks. I have zero aversion to the word "moist". From the time I was a little boy, I loved to bake cakes, and I usually strove to make them MOIST. In fact, I rather like both the sound and the meaning of "moist", whereas "clammy" is a bit creepy for me.

    Both the surname and double middle name of Matthew J. X. Malady struck me as curious. It turns out, though, that the Irish surname "Malady" — which I somehow felt resonated nicely with "aversion" — is not that unusual:

    http://www.houseofnames.com/Malady-history?A=54323-292

    http://lastnames.myheritage.com/last-name/Malady

    But I haven't been able to find an explanation for Mr. Malady's double middle name. It's not just the fact that it's a double middle name. There aren't that many names that begin with X (other than those spelled in Pinyin, which are quite numerous). I don't know of any given names in Irish or English that begin with an X, while names beginning with J are very common, though I knew someone who wrote an entire book in which he claimed that people who have given names beginning with J exhibit a strong tendency to use just the initial for such names. It was an odd book, but he gave lots of examples and he also gave lots of reasons for why they did so.

    http://www.aussiethings.com.au/babynames/xboy.htm

    http://www.aussiethings.com.au/babynames/jboy.htm

  12. Marc Foster said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 5:32 pm

    Given that the surname is Irish, a good bet for the middle name is Xavier which is reasonably common for Catholic men.

  13. Narmitaj said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 6:48 pm

    Is a Maoist the most disliked type of ideologue?

  14. jonathan said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 6:51 pm

    I've seen a lot of Catholics with some combination of F, X, and J for first and middle initials, and always assumed they were Francis, Xavier, and Joseph.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 7:02 pm

    @Marc Foster and Jonathan

    I actually thought of Xavier, but hadn't considered it as being popular among Irish.

  16. Xmun said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 7:31 pm

    The usual modern spelling of Xavier in Spanish-speaking countries is Javier, just as the modern spelling of Quixote is Quijote. Over the years the pronunciation has changed from [ʃ] to [h]. It has always (irrationally) irritated me when I hear the name pronounced with an initial [z] and with the same vowels as "rapier".

    Idle thought: what (if anything) is the difference in meaning between "irrationally" and "unreasonably"?

    My own pseudonym Xmun is the Maltese spelling of Simon, and it's pronounced much like Shimon but with the first vowel lost and the second somewhat changed.

  17. Rodger C said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 7:41 pm

    @Narmitaj: And then there are the Mohists, a clear example of moist-aversion or at least giggle-aversion among philosophy students.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 8:14 pm

    @Xmun

    Thank you very much for explaining the pronunciation of your name. It has long puzzled me.

  19. Jason said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 9:45 pm

    @David Morris: I was spending a moment or three thinking about what "pussy wounds" actually are, and I decided I'd rather not know.

    That's a whole different topic we might call "homograph avoidance." I've often thought it's a damned lucky thing "country" is spelled "country" and not cuntry.

  20. David Morris said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 9:47 pm

    If I ever see "FX" as two middle initials, I immediately assume "Francis Xavier", especially with someone who is or might be Irish. It's less common to see "JX" but I would still assume "Xavier" until otherwise informed.
    I'm now more intrigued that he is credited as "Matthew J. X. Malady" both on Slate and here. In Australia, public writers (or other public figures) most often use [first given name] + [surname] only, unless there are two people in the same field with similar names. I can't imagine that there are too many writers named Matthew Malady, but just because I haven't encountered that surname doesn't mean that it isn't more common than I think.

  21. spherical said,

    April 2, 2013 @ 2:43 am

    You can't moist your cake and eat it, too.

  22. maidhc said,

    April 2, 2013 @ 4:39 am

    Was there any aversion to "tin" before the Monty Python "a dreadful tinny word" sketch?

    An earlier example of word aversion is the old vaudeville sketch "Niagara Falls! Slowly I turned … inch by inch .. "

    I wonder how far back this goes, and whether it spreads like folklore, like ideas like putting aspirin in Coke.

    Jason: perhaps "country" is spelled the way it is for that very reason. It didn't stop Shakespeare from making the pun though. Or Thomas Campion.

  23. Tom said,

    April 2, 2013 @ 5:11 am

    There is a word that is like a fingernail on a chalkboard every time I hear it — supper. This aversion leads the thread into the irrational nature of many of the averted words. Why sup-perr? For me, there's something grossly sensuous about the first word — to sup. And that's recognizably not a rational response.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    April 2, 2013 @ 6:10 am

    The etymological antecedents for "country", going all the way back to their presumed PIE origins, have an "o" as their main vowel; the etymological antecedents for "cunt", going all the way back to their presumed PIE origins, have a "u (earlier forms are ue[y] / eu / we)" as their vowel. As Chaucer said of lusty Nicholas in "The Miller's Tale": "And prively he caughte hire by the queynte." But that didn't, and still doesn't, prevent countless wits from punning on the two words.

  25. Narmitaj said,

    April 2, 2013 @ 8:38 am

    @ Victor Mair: " But that didn't, and still doesn't, prevent countless wits from punning on the two words."

    One of the best recent ones was Stephen Fry playing Uxbridge English Dictionary on I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue –

    Countryside: The murder of Piers Morgan

    British politicians – eg Tony Blair, who seemed to stop partway though as if realising what he might be misunderstood as saying – tend to refer to "our country", but I notice US politicians tend to prefer to say "our nation"; is that partly wariness over the possible word association football?

  26. Kyle Gorman said,

    April 2, 2013 @ 11:23 am

    Mark asks why nobody has done any serious work on word aversion. But, what follows from an account of word aversion? What would it help us to understand other than, well, why people don't like "moist"? [There is surely something! I just am drawing a blank.]

  27. mollymooly said,

    April 2, 2013 @ 4:57 pm

    A. Ross Eckler hypothesised in 1968 that any American with initials F.X.O'B. was named Francis Xavier O'Brien. Francis Xavier is the second most important Jesuit saint, and most Irish mammies would rather their son were called Francis X. O'Brien than Ignatius L. O'Brien.

    ——

    Maybe plain Matthew James Malady inserted a gratuitous X to spice up his byline.

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