In recent years, hatred of the word “moist” has gone viral. But there are also five other words that make many women cringe. (GIF: Priscilla De Castro for Yahoo Health)
There are words that most folks find offensive — curse words and racial slurs probably come to mind — and then there are words that just make our skin crawl for no apparent reason.
As Mark Liberman, PhD, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, explains on his blog “Language Log,” “Word aversion is 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.”
In other words, aversive words aren’t particularly taboo — yet they still have the power to make us cringe.
In some cases, word aversions may be almost entirely a result of phonetics: The actual sound of “luggage” or “hardscrabble,” for example, may simply sound like nails on a chalkboard to some people’s ears. “One prominent theory is that there is something inherently unpleasant about certain sounds, like the hard ‘-oist’ sound,” Paul Thibodeau, PhD, a language psychologist at Oberlin College, tells Yahoo Health. That may be because pronouncing certain vowel sounds — for example, some diphthongs (the combination of two vowels in a single syllable) — requires more facial constriction, which subconsciously signals disgust, he says.
But other words — think creamy, ointment, or tweak — just have cringe-worthy connotations we’d rather not call to mind. “The common denominator seems to be disgust, either toward bodily functions or sex,” says Thibodeau. In a new survey of 500 females by Knix Wear, a women’s underwear company, six words that turned women off the most all seemed to be “vaguely sexual or associated with bodily secretions or waste,” Liberman notes. However, unlike Thibodeau, he maintains that the phenomenon of word aversion is mostly “irrational and random,” not necessarily driven by either sound or meaning.
So which words are most universally hated? Check out the six most cringeworthy words to women, according to the Knix Wear survey:
Moist: Hated by 77 percent of women
This is one word we can almost unanimously agree is gross: There’s a Facebook group called “I Hate the Word Moist” that has nearly 7,000 followers, and in a Mississippi State University poll, “moist” was named one the ugliest words in the English language. In fact, the word is so despised that scientists have researched exactly why it gives so many people the creeps. In a 2014 study, Thibodeau and his co-investigators found that people believe “moist” is revolting simply because of the way it sounds — a theory contradicted by the fact that those who hated the word didn’t have a problem with similar-sounding words, such as “foist” or “hoist.” “People have a really visceral reaction” to the word, says Thibodeau. “They cringe immediately, so they think it’s the sound of the word that’s triggering it.”
But the real source of people’s discomfort with the word “moist” probably has more to do with its associations with sex and bodily functions. In the study, participants especially hated the word when it followed vulgar sexual words, but were less grossed out when it came after food-related words, such as cake. Plus, people who cringed at “moist” also tended to dislike “damp,” “wet,” and “sticky,” suggesting that the meaning of “moist” is a big part of the problem.
Related: Should We Ban the Word “Slut”?
Squirt: Hated by 68 percent of women
Simply saying the word “squirt” may trigger feelings of disgust, since “squirt has some of the same phonetic features as moist — it has the hard ‘t’ at the end, and it forces you to constrict your mouth as you produce the vowel,” explains Thibodeau.
But the issue with squirt may also be due to its sexual connotations, he says, most obviously because “squirting” is the slang word for female ejaculation. Since this arousal response is often depicted in pornography and is highly fetishized by men, women may have developed a special distaste for the word. Either way, as one woman in an interview with Knix Wear explained, “The only time it’s OK is when a very old man, who must be related to you, is like, ‘Good job, squirt.’”
Panties: Hated by 54 percent of women
Although dislike of the word “panties” isn’t as mainstream as the aversion to “moist,” there are enough haters to warrant an entire Reddit thread devoted to panties-provoked disgust. One man said he named his home Wi-Fi network “Moist Funky Panties” just to get under his wife’s skin. Another user lamented, “It sounds so dirty, and I have no reason to explain why.”
Despite the general confusion about why, exactly, “panties” is a disturbing word, one commenter did offer a funny phonetic explanation: “You can’t articulate the ‘t’ without sounding like a governess who wears crinolines and bustles, and when you don’t articulate that ‘t’ it makes me think of gigantic cotton things with a 2-inch thick waistband with my name written in Sharpie.”
However, Thibodeau thinks people’s squeamishness likely has to do with the weird juxtaposition of the word’s two connotations: one with childhood, the other with eroticism. “For a very young person, panties is almost euphemistic [for underwear] — it’s gentle,” he says. But then, “it sort of takes on these sexual properties — it becomes risqué — as people grow up.”
His sentiments are echoed in the Reddit thread, with one commenter claiming “panties” is “infantilizing and weird,” while another hates the word “because it sounds too sexualized. I like the term underwear because that’s what it is, no matter what gender or how sexy.” A female writer makes this same argument in an Atlantic article — in her view, “panties” is too sexy a term for what many women view as a utilitarian garment, arguing that we should simply refer to women’s underwear according to its style (e.g. “thong,” “boy-shorts,” etc.), just as we do with men’s underwear.
Related: Nice Words Can Lead to Weight Loss
Chunky: Hated by 40 percent of women
The women in the survey were totally cool with the term “chunky peanut butter.” But describing a person as chunky? Not OK. “How people use it completely ruins its potential,” one woman said. Unlike words like “curvy” or “full-figured,” there’s nothing kind about “chunky,” says Thibodeau, since it calls to mind a boxy body, rather than a feminine form. But this explanation would put “chunky” into the category of offensive words, rather than randomly hated ones. That said, it’s probably not just the negative connotation of the word that makes it hated — it also sounds strikingly similar to “funky,” he points out, a word that calls to mind smelly socks or too-old food.
Curd: Hated by 23 percent of women
It’s not that women have a problem with the food itself. “Cheese curd is OK, but just curd is not OK,” said one of the women surveyed by Knix Wear. So what exactly about “curd” makes women cringe? It may be that “curd” sounds like three words for gross things: turd, crud, and curdle, says Thibodeau. “There is definitely evidence that words that have similar sounds take on the associations of the other words,” he says. Translation: Even if cheese curds don’t disgust you, curdled milk and dog turds probably do, subconsciously causing you to cringe at the sound of the word “curd.”
Flap: Hated by 22 percent of women
This one’s a bit of a mystery — but Thibodeau does have a theory: For the younger generation, “flap” may sound disturbingly similar to “fap,” a term used by teens and 20-somethings for masturbation. Beyond that, distaste for “flap” may simply stem from a discomfort with the human body, since the medical term “skin flap” is almost as gross as the word “flesh.”
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