Science knows no bounds, a sentiment which recently led researchers to ponder the following question: Why does the word "moist" tend to weird people out?
Science has delivered some answers, too. Julian Huguet sounds out the big words in today's DNews report.
In a study published at the online journal PLOS One, the "moist" issue is addressed with admirable scientific rigor. The inherent ickiness of the word has become a kind of pop culture joke in recent years, popping up in online debates and TV shows. It's an example of what psychologists call word aversion, a phenomenon in which people find certain words elicit feelings of unpleasantness or disgust.
Researcher Paul H. Thibodeau, assistant professor of psychology with Oberlin College, wanted to know about "moist" in particular. In a series of five experiments, he surveyed a range of people to determine what is so offensive about the word.
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Several hypotheses were explored. One idea is that certain words just don't sound right when we say them or hear them. This theory suggests that phonological properties underlie word aversion. Indeed, in Thibodeau's study, people most often cited this as the reason they disliked "moist."
However, overall data from the studies point to another reason entirely. In the case of "moist," it's the semantic nature of the word that actually triggers a reaction. That is to say, it's not about what it sounds like, it's about what it means.
The studies determined that most people tend to associate "moist" with sex, genitalia and bodily functions. Test subjects particularly disliked the word when primed to think about these issues and related correlations like "damp" or "wet." On the other hand, when primed to associate "moist" with something more innocuous, like cake, respondents weren't as bothered by the word.
They also didn't have any particular objections to similar words like "hoist" and "rejoiced." These results reinforce the notion that aversion is based on semantic associations and not phonological properties.
Check out Julian's report for more details, including a potential synesthesia connection and a rogue's gallery of other oogy words like "crevice" and "ointment." Science!
-- Glenn McDonald
Slate: Why Do We Hate Certain Words?
New York Times: We Know You Hate 'Moist'. What Other Words Repel You?
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