The strange linguistic phenomenon of word aversion
There is so much hate in the world. People hate smoking, Starbucks, American Idol, air travel, bears, and people of all stripes, based on their race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, height, width, or favorite Beatle. As for me, I hate Johnny Depp (for his awful, cartoony version of Hunter S. Thompson) and pea soup (too many putrid bowls scarred my childhood).
But of all our prejudices, one of the strangest is surely word aversion, the odd phenomenon of people being grossed out, in an almost physical way, by certain words.
As University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman said, when the topic first popped up on Language Log in 2007, word aversion is different from word rage, which is "where people get angry at jargon or slang associated with a despised group, or upset because a word or phrase is felt to be incorrectly used, or annoyed at language that they perceive as redundant, or overly complicated, or pretentious, or a cliché, or trendy, or politically incorrect." That kind of dislike is more common. Grudges against irregardless, synergy, like, don't go there, or retard fit comfortably in the word rage department.
But word aversion has something to do with the sound and structure of the word itself. As commenter Shannon said on a recent Language Log post, some reactions are "...bred of the mysterious relationships between language, emotion, memory, sound and ‘mouthfeel.'" I'm more used to seeing the word mouthfeel in discussions about beer, but it sure does get at the physical violation some feel when saying certain words.
Other recent Language Log comments-and boy, do these kinds of articles attract comments-illustrate the varied, visceral repugnance of word aversion. Irina detests stimulate, which "feels sexual in an icky way." Bonita Kyle dislikes vegan, a word that "seems so ugly." Alan Gunn had an unfortunate driving experience that future street-namers may wish to consider: "There's a road I use occasionally named ‘Smilax.' It's named for a kind of vine, but I can't help thinking about laxatives whenever I see the sign." But commenter alyxandr has the most surprising feeling: "If it's not too meta, i've never liked ‘English'; it sounds like you just stepped in something you'd rather not know about." Maybe this is because English rhymes with squish-or it's just a perfect reminder of how individual and unpredictable word aversion can be.
Then again, it's easy to predict that when word aversion is discussed, the patron yuck-word of the movement will be mentioned: moist. This word gets on the wick of more people than any other, for reasons that are still not entirely understood, although it seems that the main offendees are female and the main reason for their revulsion is the supposed off-the-charts ick factor of the word. Facebook groups like "I HATE the word ‘moist'," "Moist is a WRONG word," and "People who hate the word Moist!" abound. Check out these recent tweets:
"thank you the word moist, for being the worst word ever. i think i speak for all americans when i say we don't want you as a word anymore."
July 29, 2009, Holly Melynn
"@Pandabeara EWWW MOIST. I really do hate that word. except in reference to cake."
July 28, 2009, The Barron
"least liked word of the day: moist... :shudders:"
July 28, 2009, Amber Kochanny
"#leastfavoritewords moist....that word makes me cringe"
July 28, 2009, Dawn Anderson
One tweeter speculates on the reason for the hate: "I don't know, it just freaks people out. I guess moist is like a porn word or something..." (July 29, 2009, Amanda Keener). Indeed, since panties is another word frequently hated, you don't have to be Dan Savage to see a sexual component in the dislike. On the other hand, the Visual Thesaurus editor Ben Zimmer has noted that other hated words such as "Ointment and goiter share the ‘oi' sound with moist: there must be something about that diphthong that gets under people's skin." Maybe he's onto something: wet, damp, soaked, drenched, soggy, and water-logged have similar meanings to moist, but they don't inspire the same kind of hostility.
Word-haters should learn a lesson from the moistaphobes: their ceaseless efforts to lambaste the word have only raised moist's profile. But don't let that stop you. Let me know what words give you the willies, and why.
(Tune in next week for a flip to the cool, nausea-free side of the pillow, as I switch to the topic of word attraction-the opposite of word aversion, in which people fall head over dictionary in love with words).
Photo from Flickr user Steve Snodgrass (cc).