The Word 'Moist' Sounds Gross, But That's Not Why You Hate It

Chunky pustule.

|
May 7 2016, 5:11pm

Image: Flickr/Andrew Curran

"Your moist crevice is visible through your damp, wet slacks."

Approximately 20 percent of you should be climbing out of your skin in disgust at that sentence. Indeed, after tweeting the phrase on Twitter, I was told I'd be reported, that I'd ruined a person's lunch, and that it was "the most repulsive stringing together of words" someone had ever read.

Despite its unpopularity, few definitive conclusions have been made about why—and how many—people are bothered by the usage of "moist." But a study recently published in the journal PLOS One offers new insights into this modern logomisia. As it turns out, your hatred for the word has less to do with its distasteful sound than you'd think.

Does this slime mold gross you out? Image: Flickr/MK - fotky

"It doesn't really fit into a lot of existing categories for how people think about the psychology of language," the study's author, Paul Thibodeau, a professor of psychology at Oberlin College, told the New York Times. "It's not a taboo word, it's not profanity, but it elicits this very visceral disgust reaction."

In 2012, BuzzFeed summarized the sentiments of grossed-out youths everywhere in a list declaring "Why Moist Is The Worst Word Ever." Ever. Not long after, readers of The New Yorker overwhelmingly elected "moist" as the single word that should be eliminated from the English language.

The world's abhorrence of "moist" reached absolutely fervid levels a few years ago, and according to Google Trends, really started to peak somewhere around 2013. When webcomic site The Oatmeal created its stupidly viral "moist" flowchart in 2015, those of us unafflicted surrendered all hope for ever salvaging the word.

Through a series of experiments intended to peel back the psychological layers around this phenomenon, Thibodeau found evidence to support a new theory that "moist" is hated not for its phonetic properties, but for its semantic corollaries that make us think of bodily fluids, or effluvia. Vomit, phlegm, discharge, mucus.

How about this hagfish slime? Image: Flickr/dirtsailor2003

Popular opinion suggests the aversion to "moist" and other blegh words like "chunky," "squirt," and "pustule" stems from their nauseating phonology. Something about the juxtaposition of "oi" with "ss" and "tt" produces an unfavorable sound. Yet if that were true, benign words such as "foist" and "hoist" should also give people the creeps.

English-speakers could also detest "moist" because pronouncing it requires us contract certain zygomatic muscles that correspond to facial expressions of disgust. Or, perhaps at some point the word became contaminated by its association with sex and foreplay. Alternatively, maybe we're simply witnessing a cultural fad, and the hatred of "moist" will ebb with time.

Approximately 2,500 tests subjects recruited through Amazon's Mechanical Turk were asked to judge words, along with "moist," based on a variety of dimensions, including lexical categories, phonological properties, and semantic relation.

In free response tasks, one-third of subjects indicated an aversion to "moist," and of that subset, most said the word reminded them of sex.

However, in another free response test, participants largely criticized the word's sound—rather than its connotation—as the culprit for its negative reputation. But according to subsequent experiments, subjects were less bothered by words with similar phonetic properties than by words semantically related to "moist" such as "damp," "puke," and "wet."

Again, contrary to test subjects' self-reported beliefs, findings demonstrated the sexual implications of "moist" were less troublesome than its affinity to bodily fluids. Words like "horny," "pussy," and "fuck" fell low on a scale of aversiveness when paired with "moist." And as for food pairings, "moist cake" was the most tolerable prime.

According to Jason Riggle, a professor in the department of linguistics at the University of Chicago, people's avoidance of "moist" is comparable to other phobias.

"If there is a single central hallmark to this, it's probably that it's a more visceral response," he told Slate. "The [words] evoke nausea and disgust rather than, say, annoyance or moral outrage. And the disgust response is triggered because the word evokes a highly specific and somewhat unusual association with imagery or a scenario that people would typically find disgusting—but don't typically associate with the word."

Most linguistics scholars seem to agree that people's intolerance of "moist" is irrational at best, and at worst, logically wrong.

Here's a mucusy boiled egg for you. Image: Flickr/Quinn Dombrowski

A linguistics professor from the University of Pennsylvania, Mark Liberman, once wrote of word aversions: "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."

Thibodeau's analysis estimated that "moist" repulsion is felt most among younger, more educated, and more neurotic people, and is more common in women than men. The study's methodology didn't define "neuroticism," so it's unclear in what psychological sense the word was used.

As with all social studies, data should be interpreted with a grain of salt. The experiment's results were correlational for the most part, and potentially influential variables such as subjects' cultural and personal backgrounds were not taken into consideration.

If one thing's certain, however, it's that anti-"moist" propaganda isn't going anywhere soon. People will continue to speculate, obsess, and complain about the word for as long as the internet, outrage, and spoken language exist.

My advice? Don't get your moist panties in a bunch about it.