Word aversion and attraction in the news

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Language Log readers who have been following our recent posts on word aversion and word attraction will want to check out Kristi Gustafson's article in the Albany Times Union, "Words we love, words we hate," which quotes Barbara Wallraff and me on the subject. As evidence for lexical likes and dislikes, I discuss some of the favorite and least favorite words that have been selected by subscribers to the Visual Thesaurus. And over on the VT website, I follow up on the Times Union article in my latest Word Routes column. As you might expect, the oh-so-vile word moist figures prominently.

[Update: And now BoingBoing has picked up the story.]


  1. Adrian Morgan said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 5:02 am

    I can't help noticing that the two-page article instructs us to "see box on page 4". Presumably that was applicable in the print edition…

    I'm not surprised that "panties" is disliked. To me, it sounds about as adult as "moo cow" and therefore a touch patronising for the property of a grown woman. Is that a common rationale?

  2. mollymooly said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 5:19 am

    @Adrian Morgan
    Y'all should shift to the British nomenclature:

  3. Lance said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 5:56 am

    "Rationale"? :-)

    In truth, I have strong aversions to a lot of infantile-sounding-to-me words, with "yummy" near the top of the list.

    (And "treat", though I have no justification for that one. It is, as Ben notes in the quote in the article, a combination of phonological and semantic qualities, because not only am I fine with synonyms of "treat" as a noun, I don't mind "treat" used as a verb–"Let me treat you"–or, really, even as a noun from that verb–"It's my treat". But ask me if I want to go to the ice cream store to get a frozen treat, and instant shuddering. Then again, I have no trouble offering my cats a treat. It's just…applied to an object I'd eat, I suppose, I'd much rather eat something moist than a "yummy treat".)

  4. Stan said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 6:05 am

    The word moist invariably reminds me of this short song. Although it is apparently one of several Residents songs (or rather, music films) in the NY Museum of Modern Art, it is unlikely to win over anyone already disturbed by the word.

  5. Jim Roberts said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 9:17 am

    As a father of two young boys, I rather like the word, "yummy," but mostly because it means that I've created a meal my boys will devour. And if I get a "yummy tasty mmmmm," that's like getting a positive write-up in Zagat's.

  6. kentropic said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 9:24 am

    You might also want to check out the Twitterverse, where #3turnoffwords has been the dominant topic for days now. It's not exactly on point with the discussion here, but an interesting parallel sidebar….

  7. John Cowan said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 10:08 am

    Adrian: Again, topolectal issues strike. In NorthAmE, panties is entirely standard and (I believe) the only general term for a nether undergarment worn by a female person, adult or otherwise, at least once she's out of diapers, the NorthAmE word for nappies. So people who are squicked by the term have to fumble for substitutes.

    Mollymooly: Adrian's an Ozite, so I doubt he uses pants 'trousers'. In any case, I highly doubt the said undergarments are called trousers anywhere. Or do you simply mean "panties > pants; pants > trousers"? Samuel Butler in his poem "A Psalm of Montreal" summed that up well enough:

    "Thou callest trousers 'pants', whereas I call them 'trousers',
    Therefore thou art in hell-fire and may the Lord pity thee!"

    Personally I detest passed 'died'. Passed away is bad enough, but at passed I shudder. I do wish people would say died.

  8. Faith said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 11:03 am

    @John Cowan: When I was growing up, the word was "underpants." I didn't hear "panties" until I was grown, and naturally I was not about to start using it then. I've always assumed "panties" was a diminutive of "underpants," actually. So there isn't really a problem with fumbling for substitutes, nor have I run across anyone who doesn't know what article of clothing I am referring to when I say "underpants."

    I have a similar reaction to "tushie" which in my childhood was only used for children; adults either have a "tush" (when you are being fitted for trousers, for example) or a "tukhes" (when it is what you are supposed to get off and start helping around here). But in recent years I have certainly heard many people use "tushie" to refer to adult rear ends, which to me seems hopelessly infantalizing.

  9. Faldone said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 11:13 am

    I like 'minimum' but it's just because of the rhythm and counter-rhythm of my fingers on the keyboard:





    u ……U-I

    where L = lower key row, U = upper key row, M = middle finger, I = index finger. Makes a nice 3 against 2 rhythmic pattern

    Those probably aren;t the canonical fingers for those keys but they're the ones I self-taught myself.

  10. Adrian Morgan said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

    Reply to John Cowan: I was actually party to a conversation this evening in which women's underwear were mentioned. I can't remember the context, but they were referred to as "women's underwear" with no indication of fumbling… I think 'panties' sounds more than just patronising to me; there's also the incongruous implication that one might raise children to speak affectionately of them…

    I don't think I speak of 'pants' at all, actually – there are underpants and there are trousers. Underpants are usually abbreviated to 'undies' (as in "I washed my socks and undies today"). Why that doesn't sound infantile to me is possibly a good question, on which I am too tired to speculate intelligently.

    Lance: I think a phrase such as 'give yourself a treat" conjures up images of intangible rewards more readily than of food, so if you send me to the shop to get you a frozen treat, I will book you a holiday in Antarctica.

  11. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 12:28 pm

    I also find that, where I live (California), adult women use simply underwear when they mean underpants, e.g. "a pair of underwear." While for men underwear includes both underpants (which may be briefs or boxer shorts) and undershirts, for women "underwear" in this general sense (i.e. including bras, teddies etc.) is called lingerie.

  12. Vasha said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

    This may have been mentioned in one of the previous discussions on this topic, if so I apologize for not finding it before repeating. In 1946, The National Association of Teachers of Speech chose the words they considered "most beautiful" (melody, eloquence, modesty, honor, heaven, hope, purity, splendor, virtue, faith, nobility, love, harmony, adoration, innocence, joy, sympathy, divine, happiness), obviously chosen for their meaning; and "ugliest" (Jazz, plump, gripe, treachery, sap, cacophony, plutocrat, flatulent, phlegmatic, nasty, victuals, and fetch), a heterogeneous mixture of unpleasant referents (treachery, flatulent), social prejudice (jazz, victuals), and the inexplicable (sap, fetch).

  13. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 3:17 pm

    @Vasha: Oh, that ugly, ugly jazz!

    From my childhood I recall reading Willard Espy's "ten most beautiful words in English" in The Book of Lists 2 (1980). Here they are (from Jeff Miller's site):


    "Gonorrhea" is a nice counterexample to the perceived nexus between semantic and phonological pleasantness. (And unsurprisingly it shows up in apocryphal stories about poorly chosen baby names.)

    And I learn from Miller's site that Espy contributed to The Book of Lists: The '90s Edition a list of the ten ugliest sounding words in English ("excluding indecent words"):


  14. Simon Cauchi said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 4:51 pm

    The Italian word "ameno", from Latin "amoenus", seems to me to be as well as mean pleasant. So why does the English word "amenity" sound so awful? From its association with local government bureaucracy, I imagine.

  15. marie-lucie said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

    I can't believe what qualifies as "English words":


    "kumquat" often appears in food stores, "quahogs" are found on some beaches, but "kakkkak"?? and "aasvogel"??? Should we just explore a bunch of dictionaries and pick words from various languages?

    In the earlier post there was also "Ouagadougou" and "Weltanschauung" (both deemed beautiful). Or are the notions of attraction and aversion here applicable to any and all languages?

    While I am at it, I too dislike the word "moist", not because of its potential connotations (of which I was long unaware), but because pronouncing the word requires making a strange grimace and experiencing peculiar sensations as the lips come together pursed and the tongue retracts to the back of the mouth only to come forward again with the "moist" palatal [y].

  16. johnshade said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

    "Personally I detest passed 'died'. Passed away is bad enough, but at passed I shudder. I do wish people would say died."

    Me too. Whenever I hear this, I have to fight down the impulse to say, "What'd he pass — gas?"

  17. Noetica said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

    John Cowan, let me register my approval of your comment:

    Personally I detest passed 'died'. Passed away is bad enough, but at passed I shudder. I do wish people would say died.

    I have elsewhere lamented that "according to Walk the Line, Johnny Cash 'passed' in 2003". Grotesque and a half.

  18. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 6:57 pm


    I cannot agree: "Weltanschauung" is every bit as good an English word as "Schadenfreude", "aasvogel" as "aardvark".

    What *is* a "jukebox", anyway? sounds foreign to me (American, I expect).

  19. marie-lucie said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 7:16 pm

    DE: perhaps you will kindly supply a definition of "kakkak" and "aasvogel", which are totally new to me.

  20. James Parkin said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 8:05 pm


    "aasvogel" comes from Dutch/Afrikaans, and means "carrion bird". I've never seen or heard it used in English. I've only seen similar, such as "Aas vogel" and "Aaskaefer" (carrion beetle) when reading German-language nature books.

  21. Stuart said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

    I don't comment here often, but I just have to ask: Why do so many people hate "moist"? It was even used as a villain's name in a Web musical-comedy by Joss Whedon. I have read every post here about the aversion, and just don't get it. I have tried in front of the mirror and can't see the grimace marie-lucie speaks of, and the connotations completely pass me by. Maybe the aversion to it is more common in Nth American idiolects?

  22. Steve Morrison said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 9:29 pm

    A kakkak is "a small bittern of Guam" according to http://jeff560.tripod.com/words10.html (which attributes the definition to Webster's Third New International Dictionary).

  23. Faldone said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 9:31 pm

    KUMQUAT is a perfectly good word. I can't imagine why anyone would find it objectionable.

  24. mollymooly said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 12:52 am

    Or do you simply mean "panties > pants; pants > trousers"?


  25. marie-lucie said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 6:28 am

    @Steve M: A kakkak is "a small bittern of Guam"

    A perfectly good English word, indeed. It looks like every word ever mentioned in print in an English text becomes an English word. At the same time, English speakers argue about whether a novelty like "to incentive" (mentioned here a few monts ago) is a word!

    @Stuart: moist: of course if I use the word in an ordinary sentence, without stressing it unduly, it feels like an ordinary word, but if I put extra stress on it and mouth the word, dwelling on the m (mmmoist), I find the sensations not very pleasant. Of course, it could be an individual quirk of mine, and I am not a native speaker.

  26. marie-lucie said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 6:31 am

    p.s. "to incentive": I mean to incentivize.

    @Stuart: for connotations of moist (for some people) look back at Word Attraction and follow the link.

  27. Stuart said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 8:51 pm

    @ marie-lucie re:"for connotations of moist (for some people) look back at Word Attraction and follow the link."

    Thanks, but what I meant was that I HAVE been following all the related articles and still don't get the aversion. From what I've read it seems as if the aversion might be more common among female speakers, but none of the females I know have this aversion, which is why I wondered if it might be more common among North American speakers.

  28. Cath the Canberra Cook said,

    May 21, 2009 @ 10:45 pm

    "Panties" seems foolishly twee to me. Yet "undies" does not. I mostly use that, and "knickers", too. As an Aussie, I find diminutive forms everywhere: they are not just for the kiddies :) But there are still childish vs adult diminutives in Australian English.

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