Literary moist aversion

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Over the years, we've viewed the phenomenon of word aversion from several angles — a recent discussion, with links to earlier posts, can be found here. What we're calling word aversion is a feeling of intense, irrational distaste for the sound or sight of a particular word or phrase, not because its use is regarded as etymologically or logically or grammatically wrong, nor because it's felt to be over-used or redundant or trendy or non-standard, but simply because the word itself somehow feels unpleasant or even disgusting.

Some people react in this way to words whose offense seems to be entirely phonetic: cornucopia, hardscrabble, pugilist, wedge, whimsy. In other cases, it's plausible that some meaning-related associations play a role: creamy, panties, ointment, tweak. Overall, the commonest object of word aversion in English, judging from many discussions in web forums and comments sections, is moist.

One problem with web forums and comments sections as sources of evidence is that they don't tell us what fraction of the population experiences the phenomenon of word aversion, either in general or with respect to some particular word like moist. Dozens of commenters may join the discussion in a forum that has at most thousands of readers, but we can't tell whether they represent one person in five or one person in a hundred; nor do we know how representative of the general population a given forum or comments section is.

Pending other approaches, it occurred to me that we might be able to learn something from looking at usage in literary works. Authors who are squicked by moist, for example, will plausibly tend to find alternatives. (Well, in some cases the effect might motivate over-use; but never mind that for now…)

So for this morning's Breakfast Experiment™, I downloaded the April 2010 Project Gutenberg DVD, and took a quick look.

Let me say first that from the point of view of corpus analysis, the Gutenberg DVD is a mess. The text files have multiple formats, with different sorts of boilerplate fore and aft; there are many duplicate works, arranged in ways that make automated un-duplication difficult; there is no master list of path names to texts; in some cases, hyphenation and other relics of print editions are preserved; and so on. I say this not mainly to complain about the quality of free icecream (though I hope that at some time in the future, someone will produce a more analysis-friendly version), but to make the point that the clean-up I was able to accomplish in the space of an hour may very well have a few bugs. So take the following with a suitably-sized grain of salt.

I chose this list of 50 well-represented authors for a start. After removing duplicates and other extraneous material, the collection boiled down to 125,896,608 words, or an average of about 2.5 million words per author. (The minimum per-author word count was 118,881 and the maximum was 9,362,632.)

There were 798 occurrences of moist, for an overall frequency of 6.34 per million. This is roughly consistent with the frequencies seen in the Google Books ngram collection for English Fiction:

Among the 50 authors, there are four whose gutenberg-works (as processed by me this morning) have no instances of moist: Gertrude Atherton, Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, and Mary Andrews. The overall word counts for these four authors are 1,235,294, 786,308, 1,069,712, and 269,060, so if the underlying probability of moist were really about 6.34 per million, the probability of getting zero moists in the corresponding number of random draws from the urn of words would be about 0.0004, .007, .001, and 0.18, respectively.

Does this mean anything? Well, there's the Bonferroni-correction problem. And anyhow, there's no reason to expect that everyone has the same underlying frequency for every word: there are differences in topic choice as well as individual differences in word-use preferences.

A plot of all 50 authors' empirical moist-frequencies, compared (say) to their empirical dry-frequencies, helps us to visualize what's going on:

The numbers reference the previously-cited list of authors; and (because there have been suggestions that the effect might be gendered) I've plotted female authors in red, and male authors in blue.

It's clear that different authors have different underlying rates of moist-usage. For Bret Harte, whose 56 moists in 2,522,731 words make him the moistest author, the naive 95%-confidence intervas for the rate of moist usage would be 17.1 to 28.8 per million. For Mark Twain, who has only 2 moists in 3,436,448 words, a similarly-calculated confidence interval comes out as .07 to  2.1 per million.

I should note that one of Mark Twain's 2 moists is not really moist — it comes from his story "The Stolen White Elephant":

He took a pen and some paper. "Now–name of the elephant?"

"Hassan Ben Ali Ben Selim Abdallah Mohammed Moist Alhammal Jamsetjejeebhoy Dhuleep Sultan Ebu Bhudpoor."

"Very well. Given name?"


Anyhow, it's quite clear that Twain's propensity to use the word moist is substantially smaller than Harte's.

Still, Twain's one genuine use of the word is in a rather positive context, in chapter XXXIX of Roughing It, describing a visit to an island in Mono Lake:

When we reached the top and got within the wall, we found simply a shallow, far-reaching basin, carpeted with ashes, and here and there a patch of fine sand. In places, picturesque jets of steam shot up out of crevices, giving evidence that although this ancient crater had gone out of active business, there was still some fire left in its furnaces. Close to one of these jets of steam stood the only tree on the island–a small pine of most graceful shape and most faultless symmetry; its color was a brilliant green, for the steam drifted unceasingly through its branches and kept them always moist. It contrasted strangely enough, did this vigorous and beautiful outcast, with its dead and dismal surroundings. It was like a cheerful spirit in a mourning household.

There's some indication that Harte is in general more concerned with moisture, by whatever name, than Twain is — but still, moist remains unexpectedly rare in Twain's writing. For the other humidity-words wet, damp, dry, and arid, Twain runs about half the rate of Harte, while his moist usage is two orders of magnitude less frequent:

Overall words moist N wet N damp N dry N arid N
Twain 3,436,448 1 86 40 36 7
Harte 2,522,731 56 141 92 51 13


Overall words moist/MW wet/MW damp/MW dry/MW arid/MW
Twain 3,436,448 0.27 25.0 11.6 10.5 2.0
Harte 2,522,731 22.2 55.9 36.5 20.2 5.2

Perhaps that lonely moist was inserted by an editor?

Anyhow, if we look at a violin plot of the empirical distribution of moist-frequencies and dry-frequencies (per million words) in the 50 authors surveyed, we see a hint of a bimodal distribution among the moist-frequencies:

Random usage-noise, or the literary signature of moist-aversion? I'm not sure, but breakfast is over.


  1. [links] Link salad hauls the anchor up and leaves the land astern | said,

    December 27, 2012 @ 11:19 am

    […] Literary moist aversion — Language Log with some fairly deep linguistic neepery on what I consider to be one of the silliest topics going. […]

  2. Peter Nelson said,

    December 27, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

    How did you get Georgia O'Keeffe to do the violin plots for "moist"?

    [(myl) Default settings, believe it or not:

    vioplot( x, ..., range=1.5, h, ylim, names, horizontal=FALSE,
    col="magenta", border="black", lty=1, lwd=1, rectCol="black",
    colMed="white", pchMed=19, at, add=FALSE, wex=1,


  3. Theophylact said,

    December 27, 2012 @ 12:33 pm

    On the other hand, Terry Pratchett actually has a leading character named Moist von Lipwig (in Going Postal and Making Money). I assume Pratchett is aware of the aversion and is rubbing our noses in it.

  4. Theodore said,

    December 27, 2012 @ 3:44 pm

    I wonder if anyone has a phonetically-motivated aversion to "Twain" (not Twain as a man or his work, but his name). It seems like there could be.

    I long for the day when the Breakfast Experiment™ can include fMRI or similar neurological data in relation to word aversion.

    [(myl) I suspect that evoked potentials or even GSR might be better as well as cheaper than fMRI. Or maybe some kind of implicit association test. But the trouble with trying to do any sort of human experimentation over breakfast is the need to recruit suitable subjects. Students generally aren't awake during my breakfast hour; and the few exceptions are likely to be rushing off to crew practice or ROTC or something like that.]

  5. Circe said,

    December 27, 2012 @ 4:40 pm

    Perhaps this has been suggested before, but wouldn't it be profitable to survey second-language speakers of English to check if their lists of "hated" words have any correlations with those of native speakers? For what it is worth, I am not a native speaker of English, and I have never disliked the word "moist" (even though I first learnt of it in the context of what condition bread should be in for mold to grow on it). On the other hand, I do seem to have a (seemingly phonetic) aversion to words (mostly names) containing a "-oyn-" sound, and to the word "shibboleth".

  6. Richard Friedman said,

    December 27, 2012 @ 5:16 pm

    They all sound pretty woody to me.

  7. Theophylact said,

    December 27, 2012 @ 7:16 pm

    Would it be less troublesome if it were "sibboleth"?

  8. GeorgeW said,

    December 27, 2012 @ 8:03 pm

    I wonder if moisture and moisten have similar aversions. I don't feel like they do, but have nothing to support it.

  9. Richard Friedman said,

    December 27, 2012 @ 10:33 pm

    I tend to avoid all words beginning with "chth", especially
    chthonic, chthonian, and cthulhu

  10. Circe said,

    December 27, 2012 @ 11:24 pm

    @Theodore: No, my native language likely has enough phonetic shibboleths (including my real name) for that to be an issue. In particular, it has the /ʃ/ phoneme.

  11. Rod Johnson said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 1:04 pm

    I just want to appreciate what Theophylact Did There.

  12. Rod Johnson said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 1:09 pm

    @Richard Friedman: how do you feel about phthisis (et al.)?

  13. Mal in China said,

    December 29, 2012 @ 12:05 am

    My post is not about “moist” but might be linked to the topic of ‘word aversion’.

    I had not heard of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion (MIPO) – “a survey research center at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York” – until I read news stories about their research into the most annoying words used in conversation in 2012.

    “Marist questioned 1,246 adults in a U.S. nationwide, telephone survey.
    Results showed differences by age and regions, with people younger than 45 in the Northeast especially annoyed by “like”, while “you know” offended more of the 45-and-over set.

    Men and women gave similar responses overall, but whites were twice as likely as non-whites to find “you know” irritating. And people under 45 were more than twice as likely as those over 45 to be put off by “just sayin”.

    My pet hates are “awesome” and "Oh My God".

    [(myl) No, you're entirely wrong. As I tried to explain in the post, and at much greater length e.g. here or in the posts linked here, this sort of thing is explicitly NOT what we're using "word aversion" to mean. That Marist survey and your objections to "awesome" and "Oh My God" are about standard garden-variety usage peeving, which appears to be an entirely different thing.]

  14. pj said,

    December 29, 2012 @ 9:00 am

    I know someone who's beginning to get interested in astronomy, but is slightly hampered by a severe word-aversion reaction to 'globular cluster'.

  15. Anthony said,

    December 29, 2012 @ 5:58 pm

    Interesting. As a soil engineer who still gets out in the field sometimes, "moist" is a standard descriptor for soils of a certain range of moisture contents. According to the various standards, soil can be "dry, damp, moist, wet, saturated". And "moisture content" is the correct term for the amount of water relative to dry solids in a soil. So the professionals of that field didn't have an aversion to "moist", or managed to get over it.

  16. Mal in China said,

    December 30, 2012 @ 7:15 am

    @myl Thank you for the clarification. Although I studied socio and psycholinguistics as part of my psychology degree, I admit I don't have the breadth and depth of knowledge that you and other writers here have in abundance.This is one of the reasons I like reading the 'Log. Even my postgraduate work up to Master's level has not given me sufficient background to challenge a professional linguist as a peer.

    However, reading the links you provided and other comments on this forum, it appears that others share the same view as I hold. The labels 'peeve' and 'word aversion' are contructs aren't they ( q.v Berger and Luckman)? Or like "eggcorn" ,do you feel you are adding to the lexicon?

    [(myl) The point of my reply to your earlier comment was that you seem not to have read, or at least not to have understood, the post you were commenting on. The post's first paragraph makes a distinction that you ignored ("What we're calling word aversion is a feeling of intense, irrational distaste for the sound or sight of a particular word or phrase, not because its use is regarded as etymologically or logically or grammatically wrong, nor because it's felt to be over-used or redundant or trendy or non-standard, but simply because the word itself somehow feels unpleasant or even disgusting"), and links to earlier posts that discuss the distinction in detail.

    Along with some others (like Mark Peters), we've tried to establish the term "word aversion" as a basis for discussion of a certain phenomenon, distinct from the other sorts of negative attitudes towards particular words or phrases that you exemplified in your comment. It's common to lump all negative attitudes towards usage into the same category, as you did in your comment; but the reason I wrote the post in the first place was to continue exploring a specific phenomenon, not to encourage people to list all the words and phrases that they dislike for whatever reason.

    So, to repeat, the problem is not that you missed something in your course work, but that you missed something in the post you were commenting on.]

  17. Keith M Ellis said,

    December 30, 2012 @ 3:21 pm

    To defend Mal just slightly ("slightly" because, as he points out, Mark made a strong, explicit effort to clarify word aversion in his first paragraph), it sure seems to me that a not-insignificant number of people have great trouble discerning the distinction between all dislikes of usage and word aversion in particular.

    Might I suggest that this could be because many people understand their own dislikes as being equivalent to an implicit proof of inherent wrongness and therefore the distinction between usages that are "wrong" and usages that provoke disgust is, in their minds, almost non-existent?

    [(myl) There are actually quite a few categories, or perhaps dimensions, of negative lexical evaluation. Word or phrases may be perceived as illogical; redundant; unetymological; jargon; clicheed or overused; snobbish; inverted-snobbish; associated with a disliked individual or group; sub-standard; a malapropism or eggcorn; involving a foolish or absurd metaphor; obsolete; and so on.]

  18. Martha said,

    January 1, 2013 @ 2:27 am

    Mal's comment (and Keith's) makes me wonder if some people don't experience word aversion, and that's why they might not see a difference between word aversion and peeving. The word "panties" grosses me out, and hypercorrect usage of "whom" annoys me, but the feelings I get when I hear them are two distinct sensations that I would never confuse.

    [(myl) I'm sure you're right that many people have no experience of "word aversion" — I'm certainly one of them myself, as I observed when I first responded to a reader's question about the phenomenon.

    Note also that one earlier commenter speculated that it's "an American thing", because he thinks it doesn't exist in British English — presumably he's more willing than I was to assume that a linguistic reaction that he lacks must be a dialect feature.

    Another commenter suggested that the whole business is "rare and weird neurotic behavior" kicked up by ".00001% of women". Again, this seems to be someone who can't imagine that any normal person is not just like him.

    In fact, my main reason for taking a look at word distributions in 19th-century literature was the thought that this might give us a crude estimate of how common aversion to specific English words might be. I didn't get to the point of making such an estimate, mostly because the Gutenberg CD requires so much hand-work per author to turn into a usable dataset that I had to stop with 50 authors.

    It would be hard to do a meaningful survey, since it seems to be very hard to get (some) readers to pay attention long enough to suppress their eagerness to report other sorts of usage peeving. So I think that an accurate assessment of the population frequency would require analyzing the responses to a longer series of questions.]

  19. KevinM said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 2:23 pm

    The "oy" sound seems to trigger an aversion response. William Safire once suggested this as an explanation for the pompous insistence on being called an "attorney" rather than a "lawyer."

  20. Treesong said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 7:40 pm

    "Mist is mist, but what is mist isn't always mist." — James Thurber, The Wonderful O

    I wonder if it would be enlightening to compare it to the converse phenomenon, words that inspire an irrational liking not ascribable to meaning. 'Cellar door', for example, rather than 'lyrical' or 'symphony'. I've never seen the attraction but I suspect it works better for nonrhotic speakers. Seladoa.

  21. Weekly Reading « How can the poet be called unlucky? said,

    January 5, 2013 @ 7:24 pm

    […] Log, "Literary moist aversion." Personally, I tend more toward sound aversions (especially dull pencils) […]

  22. Weekly Reading « How can the poet be called unlucky? said,

    January 5, 2013 @ 7:24 pm

    […] Log, "Literary moist aversion." Personally, I tend more toward sound aversions (especially dull pencils) […]

  23. Lixseven said,

    March 3, 2013 @ 10:33 am

    Dear writers,

    I'm not native English speaker living in a English speaker country, so I had not realized about this aversion to "moist", I cannot tell because it is not a word I don't usually use day to day, different from "moisturizer".

    This article called my attention because in my own language (Spanish) I was wondering why some words sound so horrible, I really dislike some of them, I cannot remember now from the top of my head, but one of them is "socapar" (to cover up) ahhhh horrible!
    On the other hand, I know there are some words, independently from the meaning that are nice to be heard,

    Should I remember any of the horrible or nice to-hear words, I will write them down here. I hope you keep on addressing this topic in future.

  24. Warning: This post may be moist said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 6:37 pm

    […] so, you suffer from word aversion and you are not alone. Language Log’s Mark Liberman says some aversions—creamy, panties, ointment—may be related to the word’s meaning, while […]

  25. Why Do We Hate Certain Words? — Anne Kreamer said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 9:13 am

    […] some people up the wall—has garnered increasing attention over the past decade or so. In a recent post onLanguage Log, University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Libermandefined the concept […]

  26. On Word Aversion (Proceed with Caution!) | Bas Bleu Bluestocking Salon said,

    June 26, 2013 @ 8:50 am

    […] aversion. Mark Liberman, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Linguistic Data Consortium, describes it as "a feeling of intense, irrational distaste for the sound or sight of a particular word or […]

  27. Resource Dragon said,

    March 1, 2014 @ 9:00 am

    Many years ago I shared a flat with a friend and we discovered we had a mutual aversion to the word "panties". We both detested it and substituted her preferred name for them: "grundies".

    I've noticed that "panties" are not particularly popular with Australian English speakers, knickers are much more common.

    Some of my other word aversions include pimple, bottom (when used to refer to an arse), smack, pet and pumpkin. There are a couple of patterns there – the letter 'p' doesn't appear to be one of my favourites and I think the other pattern can be deduced easily.

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