Word aversion science

« previous post | next post »

Paul Thibodeau et al., "An Exploratory Investigation of Word Aversion", COGSCI 2014:

Why do people self-report an aversion to words like “moist”? The present study represents an initial scientific exploration into the phenomenon of word aversion by investigating its prevalence and cause. We find that as many as 20% of the population equates hearing the word “moist” to the sound of fingernails scratching a chalkboard. This population often speculates that phonological properties of the word are the cause of their displeasure. One tantalizing possibility is that words like “moist” are aversive because speaking them engages facial muscles that correspond to expressions of disgust. However, three experiments suggest that semantic features of the word – namely, associations with disgusting bodily functions – underlie peoples’ unpleasant experience. This finding broadens our understanding of language and contributes to a growing literature on the cognitive processes relating to highly valenced and arousing words.

Finally, an initial answer to the question I asked a few years ago:

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?

One problem with the Thibodeau et al. study, however, is that their examination of word aversion focuses on moist, and mainly engages the question of whether the aversion in that case is caused by phonetics (because the pronunciation "engages facial muscles that correspond to expressions of disgust") or by semantics (because the meaning includes "associations with disgusting bodily functions"). They find, unsurprisingly, that evidence favors the second explanation in the case of moist.

But as a result, they fail to deal with two problems: the fact that many cases of reported word aversion have no obvious negative-bodily-function associations (luggage, pugilist, nourish, wedge, furtive, squall, …), and the fact that many words with plausible bodily-function associations don't seem to turn up as instances of word aversion (damp, wet, fishy, fermented, odor, …)

For more on the topic:

"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
"Malady on word aversion in Slate", 4/1/2013
"Condensation and displacement in word aversion", 4/3/2013
"Crispy Curly Noodle Cakes", 8/21/2013

So what's really going on? Here's what I wrote in my first post on the topic, back in 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.

One aspect of language acquisition seems to be a process that connects words, more or less strongly, to emotional responses. Presumably this is part of a more general process that picks up connotations as well as denotations. We know that word-learning in general is based on prior expectations (of what plausible word-sounds and word-meanings might be), as well as on the observational evidence. We also know, from experiments and from more general considerations, that words are often learned on the basis of a small number of trials.

As a result, an individual's lexical outcomes are often idiosyncratic. And this seems to include idiosyncratic emotional associations, not only to disgust but also to more positive emotions. These associations might be influenced by phonetic symbolism, general semantic or pragmatic connections, and random aspects of the learning situation, including the individual's physiological state at the time.

As CM has suggested to me ("Condensation and displacement in word aversion", 4/3/2013), such associations can be strengthened by processes like those that Freud called Verdichtung ("condensation") and Verschiebung ("displacement"). Quoting Wikipedia:

In 1957, Jacques Lacan – building on the way in Freud's work, condensation […] and displacement are closely linked concepts, and inspired by an article by linguist Roman Jakobson – argued that the unconscious has the structure of a language, and that condensation and displacement are close equivalents to the poetic functions of metaphor and metonymy. As he cautiously put it, 'in the case of Verschiebung, "displacement", the German term is closer to the idea of that veering off of signification that we see in metonymy, and which from its first appearance in Freud is represented as the most appropriate means used by the unconscious to foil censorship'.

As I wrote at the time, I'd personally be more inclined to look for Pavlovian than for Freudian mechanisms. And there's apparently an aspect of social contagion as well. But the facts of word aversion do seem rather like a baby version of Freud's dream-interpretation theories.





  1. richardelguru said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 6:25 am

    Some years ago there was a TV series called (IIRR) 'Dead Like Me' in which a ghost (or whatever she was) moved letter magnets on a refrigerator to spell "MOIST" to upset her mother. I never realised that was a wide-spread aversion till now.

  2. BlueLoom said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 8:07 am

    My personal word aversion is, in fact, "panties." But it's not because the word is associated with lower-body clothing. It's because I find the word demeaning and infantilizing when applied to the clothing of grown women. I would have no objection to calling the underwear of a 4-year-old girl "panties," but why can't we just use "underpants" as the preferred term for adult women's underwear?

    [(myl) This sounds like a rational, principled objection to a lexical distinction, which is strikingly different from the irrational, visceral dislike of certain words that we've been calling "word aversion".]

  3. _NL said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 8:32 am

    Political sociology has been doing a lot of stuff on basic human values and impulses, and one common theme is that one's disgust reaction may be tied to political opinion and philosophical values. The thinking is that conservatives are more likely to have a higher disgust reaction (e.g. upon seeing revolting things like crawly insects) and so to value purity as an abstraction; conversely, libertarians, with extraordinarily low disgust reactions, tolerate a comparatively wide array of non-mainstream behaviors.

    I'm not sure anybody has tried to link political disgust reaction to linguistic notions of word repulsion. It might be interesting to see the interplay.

  4. Bloix said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 9:17 am

    Bakers and marketers of cake mixes seem to love "moist."





  5. shubert said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 10:17 am

    damp, wet, fishy, fermented, odor vs. moist, on which from a different angle to analyze I am working on a paper.

  6. Canary said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 10:24 am

    I have a bit of an aversion to 'moist', but only in some contexts. On reflection, I think I assume that if something is moist, it's *crumbly*, and likely to fall apart in damp chunks in my hands- 'moist dirt', 'moist cake'. It's only phrases like 'moist skin' and 'moist panties' that give me a visceral '…eeurgh' reaction- pretty much the same reaction I'd have to the mental picture of my skin or underwear dissolving lumpily, in fact. Dunno how common an association that is, I've never seen it brought up when people talk about moist-aversion.

  7. Bean said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 12:21 pm

    Baffle? What's wrong with baffle? I *love* the word baffle! I love most words with multiple f's in them (baffle, ruffle, fluff, Flin-Flon, kerfuffle, flummoxed…). Actually I guess it's the fl- blend I really like.

    As for underpants and, yuck, panties – I'm on your side, @BlueLoon. I think it must be some interplay of a gut-level hatred of the word, coupled with a rational explanation for the hatred once you're old enough to have to defend your hatred of the word to others. I think the explanation (which I agree with) is made up after the fact – the aversion, in my case, came first, and was not explainable. I've always considered panties also to be a baby word, not suitable for clothing that goes on adult bodies.

    Sheesh, I wonder what the Net Nanny at work will make of this post!

  8. Bean said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 12:22 pm

    Oops, I meant @BlueLoom…

  9. Eli Nelson said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 2:50 pm

    I don't really have anything on the level of a word aversion, but "damp" actually does strike me as an unpleasant word, about as much so as "moist." "Dank" is also unpleasant, even when it's used positively in a slang sense.

  10. KeithB said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 3:09 pm

    They could have added this to Inside-Out and had Disgust do something every time the word 'moist' was used.

  11. David L said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 3:17 pm

    Two words I have a great aversion to are 'execrable' and, even worse, 'execrably.' This is because there is no way to pronounce them that doesn't sound like a bag of bolts falling down a metal staircase. (I hope I got the right number of negations in that sentence.)

  12. Emily said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 3:55 pm

    I'm also on the panties-hate train, and yes, I also find the word to be a baby word, but I think that's rationalizing after the fact. I particularly hate the pronunciation of panties: you can't flap the t and maintain the t sound, so your options are "pannies" (awful) or "pan-ties" with nearly a glottal stop in the middle (also awful, sounds stuck up to my American ears). There's no way to say it without sounding infantile, trashy, or arrogant.

    Moist gives me no problem. I hate a lot of other baby words though: "stinky" for instance makes me shudder.

  13. Bloix said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 4:21 pm

    The problem with execrable is that it unavoidably makes the listener think of shit. Similar problem with niggardly.

    A related problem arises with words that actually have an etymology that is objectionable or mildly embarrassing. I myself avoid seminal and feisty. Maybe I'm prissy – although I don't mind "fuck" at all – but I don't like seminal and feisty.

    A word I have a true aversion to is "grab." Grab some lunch, grab your coat. Ick. It's so grabby. That's mainly meaning, I think, but maybe something to do with sound. I also don't like gab. Or the nickname Gabby.

  14. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 4:38 pm

    Is anyone disgusted by a German equivalent of "moist panties," feuchte Damenunterhöschen? (grin)

  15. Bloix said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 4:48 pm

    What I like about baffle is that it's a frequentative. I LOVE frequentatives!!!

    Waggle, wiggle, waffle, wrinkle,
    Whiffle, twinkle, topple, winkle,
    Tootle, toggle, tipple, tinkle,
    Doodle, dawdle, stipple, ripple,
    Dimple, sparkle, sniffle, dribble,
    Griddle, muffle, snuggle, bangle,
    Piddle, mangle, grizzle, dangle –

    and the greatest of them all:


  16. Chris C. said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 5:42 pm

    It's strange that "moist" should cause aversion in so many people. While I haven't watched broadcast TV in a very long time, "moist" was at one time a major selling point for cake mixes and so on. They'd repeat the word over and over to make sure you noticed it. Since ad agencies typically had a much better handle on these things well before academics, I assume they used that word as they did for good reason.

    So either they were wrong somehow, or things have changed a bit in the past 20 years.

  17. David L said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 6:23 pm

    @Bloix: I don't think my problem with 'execrable' is that it makes me think poopy thoughts. The word just sounds ungainly, disharmonious, clunky — the opposite of mellifluous.

  18. CLThornett said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 12:17 am

    Is it possible that 'moist-aversion' began with the promotion of wet wipes some time in the early 70s? That could certainly set up a stronger negative association and is the one negative image I can summon up. While I can see that moist underpants would generally be considered unpleasant, I would expect other words with more generally negative wet connotations to be used to describe them–damp or soggy, for example.

    It could be a combination of the -oist sound and association. Are foist, hoist and joist also unpleasant to the moist-averse?

  19. Chris C. said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 12:24 am

    Of course, sometimes word aversion can run to extremes… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gwXJsWHupg

  20. Nerdcore › Links: Letterpress Magic, Cheating Sleep, Linguistics of Blink 182 said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 8:06 am

    […] Log: Word aversion science: „One aspect of language acquisition seems to be a process that connects words, more or less […]

  21. Corey Bramblett said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 1:49 pm

    It's always seemed obvious to me, if maybe subconsciously obvious, that "moist" was hated by so many because of its associations and not because of the sounds. After all, what about the almost identical English words "voice", "noise", "hoist", etc. which "to me, at least) have fairly neutral connotations?

    This reminds me of the old "cellar door" meme… as well as Pinker's point that "meconium" is a beautiful word sonically but has a disgusting medical meaning. Another favorite personal example is my opinion that "melanoma" is one of the most beautiful-sounding words in English… but you can't deny that it has ugly associations :)

  22. Jonathon Owen said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 2:03 pm

    And there's apparently an aspect of social contagion as well.

    This is my pet theory. I'd wager that most people with "moist" aversion didn't have it until they heard about how gross the word "moist" is from someone else.

  23. cameron said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 6:57 pm

    Moist-aversion always reminds me of Sartre's bizarre ruminations on le visqueux in Being and Nothingness.

  24. Bloix said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 9:40 am

    "Moist eyes" used to be (still is?) a cliché signifying strong emotion, typically love or gratitude.

  25. Urstoff said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 12:55 pm

    I always figured it was just a meme; people like to say they dislike the word even though they probably really don't on any reasonable operationalization of dislike. Kind of like people saying they are afraid of clowns.

  26. MM said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 2:10 pm

    … I thought most people disliked using the word because of its sexual connotations (e.g., being moist).

    [(myl) But think a little harder: Why isn't there the same reaction to "wet", "damp", etc.?]

  27. Shannon said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 2:58 pm

    To disentangle the semantic from the phonological features, why not look between languages?

    We could check if words that give people negative reactions have common phonological features in general. If this would be the case, a non-native speaker could find a foreign word intuitively grosser than another without even knowing the meaning.

    If it were semantic, maybe the aversive words would all have similar meanings and associations across languages (for instance, those related to bodily functions), regardless of what they sound like.

    Has anyone tried this kind of study?

  28. dieselcoatl said,

    July 5, 2015 @ 5:39 am

    The reputed "aversion" to words might be one of these cases where an emotion is reinforced through its very declaration. It might even qualify as a sort of a speech act in situations like: "I hate you! I hate you! I /'fʌkɪŋ/ hate you!". The word-hate probably doesn't reach such extremes, but this reinforcement-through-verbalization might be another factor in the formation/spread of negative emotions towards some word or other, whatever the initial trigger.

    A cursory Google Scholar search yielded me this one:
    Hanako Yoshida, "A Cross-Linguistic Study of Sound-Symbolism in Children’s Verb Learning". It's not exactly about word aversion, but it's reasonably close to merit mentioning. It uses English and Japanese examples to see how parents use mimetic words to help their kids learn new words (verbs, specifically). It also has a rich list of sources on sound symbolism in references.

RSS feed for comments on this post