On Word Aversion (Proceed with Caution!)

Language is a beautiful thing…except when it isn’t. Confused? Obviously you aren’t one of the more than three thousand members of the Facebook group “I HATE the word MOIST!” (Yes, this really exists.) While we think that’s a bit of an overreaction, we do understand. As ardent readers, Bas Bleu’s editors know how much power is packed into just a few linked letters. The order in which words are arranged on paper is important, of course. But individual words have flavors of their own, whether piquant, mellow, sweet, or sparkling. They can guide us to laughter, tears, and anxiety, fomenting sensations so acute we feel them physically as our eyes race across the page. So is it any wonder there are words in the English language that can inspire irrational loathing and disgust?

That feeling, bluestockings, is what recently has come to be known as word aversion. Mark Liberman, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Linguistic Data Consortium, describes it as “a feeling of intense, irrational distaste for the sound or sight of a particular word or phrase, not because its use is regarded as etymologically or logically or grammatically wrong, nor because it’s felt to be over-used or redundant or trendy or non-standard, but simply because the word itself somehow feels unpleasant or even disgusting.”

And of all the “unpleasant or even disgusting” words that set people’s teeth on edge, moist is a pretty popular one, as Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus and the Boston Globe discovered in a 2009 poll. Also making the cut? Panties, vomit, and ointment.

Intrigued, we conducted our own highly unscientific poll in Bas Bleu’s editorial office, resulting in this cringe-worthy vocabulary list: fecund, turgid, sneaker, swarthy, squat, unctuous, discharge, canker, clammy, bulbous, and mucus. (Ugh. So gross. Rest assured you won’t be reading those words in the Bas Bleu catalog any time soon!)

Writer Matthew J. X. Malady has some very learned things to say on the subject of word aversion, which we’ll let you read for yourself here. He talked to University of Chicago professor of linguistics Jason Riggle, who explains: “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.” Riggle also points the finger at social pressure: If your friends are grossed out by a word you never thought twice about, maybe you’ll see it differently now too.

There is still considerable research to be done into the seemingly bizarre phenomenon of word aversion. But we’re book people, readers and writers, not psychologists or etymologists! We may not be able to explain exactly why we’ve developed aversions to certain words, but we’re grateful for every single one—even moist—for the language they’ve created. Without it, we couldn’t express ourselves. And we certainly wouldn’t have books, a nightmare scenario if we ever imagined one!

Fortunately, for every word we hate, there are at least a dozen more we love. We’ll leave you with a sampling to cleanse your linguistic palette: verdant, glimmer, prickle, rapscallion, zeugma, quixotic, imp, somber, wonky, tootle, doze, rogue, luminous, ripple, swaddle, trounce, zeitgeist, zaftig, serendipitous, gumption

Or better yet, check out some of the great books on language on our website!

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