Word rage and word aversion on Subtitle

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The latest episode of the new podcast Subtitle is about "Words we love to hate". Full disclosure: Kavita Pillay interviewed me for the program, and so you can hear my voice from time to time.

More later — I'm off to Washington DC for a workshop on "Digital Cognitive and Functional Biomarkers" organized by the Alzheimer's Association.

Meanwhile, you can find links to some Language Log posts on word aversion in "Word aversion science", 6/24/2015, and posts about word rage in "Annals of word rage", 5/2/2009.



  1. Brett said,

    November 20, 2019 @ 7:26 pm

    Well, that was a really disappointing listen. The working title for the episode was apparently "Words We Love and Love to Hate," but there was nothing in the final product about words that people liked the sound of. It was entirely about word aversion, a much narrower (and, to my mind, less interesting) topic than what they originally solicited contributions about.

    [(myl) Tell us more. My impression has been that "words people like the sound of" is somewhat less interesting, because the reaction is much weaker. "Word aversion" apparently makes people almost physically ill — the positive-valence equivalent would be some sort of quasi-orgasmic effect, not the rather mild sense of pronunciation pleasure that people report.]

  2. Andrew Usher said,

    November 20, 2019 @ 10:43 pm

    Well, the fact that the reaction is weaker doesn't itself make it less interesting, does it? It's not as if people haven't been often interested in the matter of words that are appealing for their sound, apart from their meaning. And perhaps the question of whether such positive reactions can be produced through the _same_ mental mechanism as word aversions, or different, is worth answering.

    However, it (word aversion) seems to be a kind of _disgust_, which I believe is always negative. The fact that it seems to be rather highly female is quite acceptable for that (I've just been thinking somewhere else about another kind of disgust that's female-specific).

    The change in the title was presumably just for clarity, although simply 'Words we hate' would have been even better for that.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  3. Ioanna said,

    November 21, 2019 @ 1:44 am

    I'm having trouble understanding the previous poster's comment. I have no idea what they mean about "seems to be rather highly female." Given the paucity of detail, I have to imagine that the other "kind of disgust that's female-specific" must be toward the commentor themself.

    I am quite curious about what they mean by their comment; so, Andrew, please clarify.

  4. Chandra said,

    November 21, 2019 @ 2:04 pm

    I'm the one who loathes "fascia", and while I did say it makes me feel a bit queasy, it isn't necessarily that intense of a feeling unless I sit around and think about it for too long. I can carry on conversations with RMTs without breaking into a cold sweat, for example.

    I wonder if Kavita has noticed that her four aversive words are all food-related? She didn't comment on that.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    November 21, 2019 @ 2:14 pm

    How are you with "fuchsia", Chandra ?

  6. Chandra said,

    November 21, 2019 @ 2:21 pm

    No problem with the sound of "fuchsia", or "Tasha", or "fascism", or anything similar

  7. Brett said,

    November 21, 2019 @ 7:26 pm

    @myl: The existence and basic parameters of word aversion are interesting, but as a longtime reader of Language Log, they are pretty familiar to me. I recognize that most people will not have this level of familiarity; however, it was still very disappointing that no broader discussion that was promised by the producers in the earlier Language Log guest post (as well as in my subsequent back-and-forth discussions with them) did not make it final podcast.

    Ultimately, general phenomenon of word aversion ("word disgust" would probably be a better term, in my opinion) does not seem to be particularly mysterious, from a psychological standpoint. It is well understood that disgust functions as a behavioral extension of the immune system, warning people away from substances and circumstances that might tend to make them sick. Certain things are universally disgusting; virtually everyone reacts negatively to certain foul odors, various vermin, and excrement. However, it is also adaptive to teach disgust culturally and situationally, so that people can learn additional hazards to avoid. The efficacy of this teaching (and the frequent occurrence of idiosyncratic "false positives" that particularly individuals come to strongly dislike) is well documented outside the linguistic sphere, and there does not seem to be anything unique about the linguistic version—except for the (possibly recent) endemic presence of "moist" disgust in the population.

    @Chandra: I definitely noticed that the words Kavita Pillay so strongly disliked were food related—although, from the outside, it is impossible to know whether that signifies anything beyond coincidence. In general, ordinary disgust reactions are most concentrated in connection with aliments, since the things that we actively put into our bodies are those that need to be screened the most carefully against risks of illness. (In The Night Land, by William Hope Hodgson, the narrator suggests that the inhabitants of the dying far-future Earth where most of the novel takes place know just as intuitively that they should not eat anything that they find or kill in the wilderness outside their Great Redoubt, just as surely as people of today know not to eat dung.)

  8. Andrew Usher said,

    November 21, 2019 @ 9:07 pm

    Yes, that is the best working hypothesis to me, as well. I would have carefully specified, though, that "disgust functions as a behavioral extension of the immune system" refers to its origin and not necessarily to all of its function (so the word 'functions' may not be best there). In my first reply I did not stress that because I was thinking more about the other issue you raised.

    And I don't think there's anything strange about my saying that word aversion seems to be very much biased female, and I was not the first to say so. The universal disgusts you mention affect both sexes, but extensions of them, including (as you call it) the lingustic variant, need not be so neutral. Can you imagine a man saying he loathes 'moist'? Most men that understand the concept will say that they don't have any word aversions – whereas most women are ready with a list of examples.

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