The word 'moist' grosses out a fifth of the world's population

The word 'moist' grosses out a fifth of the world's population

What's the grossest sounding word in the English language? Some say 'phlegm,' some say 'mucus,' but one word seems to top every poll, time and time again: moist.

But why does the word 'moist' disgust people so much? Is it the sound of the word, or the associations it brings to mind? Paul Thibodeau from Leiden University in the Netherlands investigated the matter in a study called A Moist Crevice for Word Aversion: In Semantics Not Sounds.

Thibodeau conducted five experiments to scientifically explore "the phenomenon of word aversion by investigating its prevalence and cause." In the first experiment, participants judged words with similar definitions to moist (damp, sticky, wet, etc.), words phonetically similar to moist (hoist, foist, rejoiced, etc.), and taboo words of various kinds (phlegm, horny, murderer, etc.).

Participants in the second experiment were asked to do free association, saying the first word then sprung to mind when given a taboo word. In the third experiment, they rated words on a five point scale for their positive or negative connotation and took a surprise recall test. The two experiments were designed to "track underlying psychological processes" about their aversions.

Finally, experiments four and five were constructed "to induce an aversion’ to ‘moist’," to see whether participants disgust was "transmitted socially or through a process of conscious deliberation (or both)." In other words, did people find the word unpleasant on their own, or where they socially influenced to think so? As one person in the second experiment stated, "I’m not sure I did [think 'moist' was aversive] until other people pointed out that they did. Then it started to bother me as well.")

According to Thibodeau's results, 10-20% of the world's population is averse to the word 'moist,' and their disgust stems from the semantic properties of the word, not the phonological properties (i.e. the associations it brings up related to bodily functions, not how it ounds). The results also suggest "word aversion is more prevalent among younger, more educated, and more neurotic people, and is more commonly reported by females than males."

disgusted woman Credit: Getty

Jason Riggle, a professor in the department of linguistics at the University of Chicago, compared word aversions in an article by Slate. "The [taboo words] evoke nausea and disgust rather than, say, annoyance or moral outrage," he told the publication. "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."

Our aversion to certain words, then, is the product of our environment. Our moist, moist, moist environment, full of phlegm, mucus, pus, ointment, panties, smegma, festering curd and lugubrious slurps of pulp.

Well, I'm off to lunch!