Picture this: You’ve just finished up a large slice of delicious cake, and you’re looking to describe said cake to your friends. But the best descriptor you can come up with is (warning: gross word ahead)—moist.
Your friends cringe, and they’re not alone. More than 3,000 people like the Facebook page “I HATE the word MOIST!” and it was the most popular entry in a New Yorker poll asking readers which word they’d like to be eliminated from the English language. As much as 20 percent of the population equates the word to the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard.
But what exactly is it about the word that triggers such a strong aversion? According to research published by psychologists at Oberlin College and Trinity University, our collective hatred seems to have little to do with the word’s phonological properties (how it sounds), and much more to do with the emotional context.
The researchers drew their conclusions from three separate experiments. In the first, they asked 400 participants to rate 29 different words on a variety of categories. The second involved a separate group of 400, who were asked to name the first word that came to mind when hearing the word “moist.” The final experiment involved 41 students who were presented with strings of letters in blocks of 80. Moist was presented in the second block, and the researchers studied how quickly the participants reacted.
Overall, the study participants weren’t repulsed by the words “foist” or “rejoice,” disproving the theory that the aversion is caused by the way the word inherently sounds, or the shape your face makes when saying it. But “moist”-averse people do also tend to dislike related words such as “damp” and “wet,” and are highly disgusted with bodily functions. So it seems to be the meaning of the word, and its underlying association with bodily functions, at the root of the unpleasant association.
The researchers also tested how participants reacted to hearing the word in a variety of contexts. They often considered “moist” unpleasant when it followed an unrelated positive word, such as “paradise,” and it provoked the most disgust when used with overtly sexual words. And, though still not exactly well received, the word didn’t seem as bad when used in the context of food.
So, bakers and meteorologists, carry on as needed—after all, there’s no other word that can accurately describe “slightly wet.” In the end, it’s our own word-association problem (and perhaps the numerous pop-cultural references) that causes us to squirm.