I used to find the word moist nauseating to hear and even worse to utter—I hate it for what seemed like no reason. When I started telling people how much I hated the word, I was surprised to find that others did, too. Many people also hated words like “supple”, “chunk”, “squat”, “succulent”, “gluten”, “luggage” and “panties.”  If you cringed at any of the words in the list above you’ve experienced what psychologists call “word aversion.”

Word aversion has drawn impressive pop-cultural coverage in the last five-or-so years. It has been the subject of many a Buzzfeed article and inspired an entire subplot to an episode of How I Met Your Mother. But despite all the talk of these fairly neutral words that we find so revolting, very little is known about why we can’t stand them. If these words don’t actually reference anything particularly gross, why is it they still feel so gross? Furthermore, why are some people perfectly fine with words like “moist” while others are so disgusted by them?

How the Brain Makes Meaning From Words

“Sound symbolism,” which comes from linguistics, is one theory that could explain why the word “moist” makes some of us feel the need to take a shower.  Sound symbolism is the idea that each phoneme—a single unit of sound that can be combined with other units to make words—carries its own inherent “meaning”. That is, the phoneme alone is somehow associated with a concept. For example, long vowel sounds are often associated with the idea of largeness, and some researchers believe that this meaning comes about because of the physical experience we have upon articulating certain sounds (known in psych terms as “embodied cognition”). Researchers hypothesize embodied cognition occurs when long vowel sounds force us to lift our soft palate, creating a larger space in the mouth and throat. We then associate these sounds with the relative largeness they create in our bodies and—whether purposefully or not—employ these sounds in words referring to larger, thicker heavier objects. In the case of “moist” some researchers have suggested that the shape your mouth takes when pronouncing “moi” mimics a face you might make when disgusted (interestingly, disgust is one of six facial expressions that can be recognized across all cultures).

Does Context Matter?

But of course, the way a word sounds is not the only potential explanation for word aversion. Context also alters the ways we perceive a word. For example, a “moist cake” is generally a pleasant thing while a “moist foot” is not. Paul Thibodeau and colleagues at Oberlin College recently published the  paper “An Exploratory Investigation of Word Aversion”, which finds that the likelihood of someone having an aversion to “moist” increases when the individual is also particularly disgusted by bodily functions, and that word aversion is thus—at least for the word “moist”—semantic in nature. In addition, these findings may also point to a sociocultural explanation for word aversion where our culture of body guilt (people having “private parts”, sex as taboo, masturbation as dirty, and cleanliness as next to godliness) causes us to dislike any word that reminds us of our bodies’ unpleasant features and functions. Words associated with the female body often invoke this dislike, which could be linked to the fact that, as many scholars have argued, far more shame is imposed upon the female body than on the male body in the U.S.

Psychologists agree that developing a better understanding of what causes word aversion could further our knowledge of word processing as a whole, potentially changing the way we think of how language evolves and is perceived. More than a trivial, pop-cultural fad, word aversion has the potential to give us insight into how the world in which we live and the words we create influence language development and human communication.

Feature image courtesy of https://housebuyfast.co.uk.

Further Reading:

Melissa Troyer. “Language, Memory, and the Words to Say It.” Hippo Reads.

Paul Thibodeau. “An Investigation of Word Aversion.” Cogsci Conference 2014.

Steven Pinker. “Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language.” Harper Perennial.

About The Author

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Kate hails from New Hampshire and attended Colby College in Waterville, Maine. While there, she threw the hammer, blacksmithed, and double-majored in psychology with a concentration in neuroscience and German. Along with her mentor, Dr. Jennifer Coane, she has conducted research into memory, lexical processing, and word aversion (with more words than just moist). She has lived and worked on protected Puffin islands conducting conservation ecology research as well as researched second language learning and German linguistics. These days, she is pursuing a PhD. in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Utah, where she studies cognitive control, bioenergetics, and individual differences.