Moist, Crevice and Slacks: Study Reveals the Most Repulsive English Words

Posted on May 7, 2016

Moist aversiveness chart

Writers pay a great deal of attention to what words they use, whether they are writing fiction, nonfiction or poetry. But even the most skilled writer can alienate a reader if he uses a word that disgusts that reader just because of the way it sounds. A recent study on word aversion among Americans was published in the journal PLOS One. The study was conducted to discover why so many people have an aversion to words such as "moist."

Five experiments conducted by a team led by Dr. Paul H. Thibodeau of the Department of Psychology, Oberlin College, in Oberlin, Ohio, revealed the between 10-20% of the American population are disgusted by the word "moist." The team attempted to discover why the word and other get such a strong reaction. Part of the reason some words, such as phlegm, bother people so much is the meaning of the thing being described itself is related to an unpleasant bodily function. But the research also showed that certain semantic features of words can cause disgust just because of they way they sound when spoken.

The study showed that those subjects who had stronger aversion to words tended to be younger, more educated people. More neurotic people also had higher word aversion scores, as did women overall. The top ten most disgusting words included moist, crevice, slacks, luggage, puke and phlegm. Several common swear words such as the f-bomb also rated as highly repulsive. Those who despise the word moist also tend to dislike the works "eww" and "yuck."

One theory is that words such as moist are aversive because when you speak them you constrict your zygomatic muscles, which reduces blood flow in the sinus and raises the cerebral temperature. Another theory is that when you say "moist" you are making the same facial expressions you make when you make a sound of disgust. Future studies will put participants in a PET scanner to see what is being triggered in the brain when the disgusting words are spoken or read.

You can read more about the fascinating study in the paper entitled "A Moist Crevice for Word Aversion: In Semantics Not Sounds" here. Our own highly unscientific survey revealed that moist is, indeed, truly revolting. We also received very high marks of disgust for lactose, pulchritude, panties and puke.

Image: PLOS One

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