Word Aversion.

Surprisingly, LH doesn’t appear to have covered word aversion. Perhaps I was just afraid of provoking a comment thread full of people nattering on about how they hate the word moist, one of the more tiresome fads of the early 21st century. At any rate, Matthew J.X. Malady has written about it for Slate, and I guess I’ll risk posting it:

The phenomenon of word aversion—seemingly pedestrian, inoffensive words driving some people up the wall—has garnered increasing attention over the past decade or so. In a recent post on Language Log, University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman defined the concept 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.” […]

Participants on various message boards and online forums have noted serious aversions to, for instance, squab, cornucopia, panties, navel, brainchild, crud, slacks, crevice, and fudge, among numerous others. […] Jason Riggle, a professor in the department of linguistics at the University of Chicago, says word aversions are similar to phobias. “If there is a single central hallmark to this, it’s probably that it’s a more visceral response,” he says. […]

Riggle thinks the phenomenon may be dependent on social interactions and media coverage. “Given that, as far back as the aughts, there were comedians making jokes about hating [moist], people who were maybe prone to have that kind of reaction to one of these words, surely have had it pointed out to them that it’s an icky word,” he says. “So, to what extent is it really some sort of innate expression that is independently arrived at, and to what extent is it sort of socially transmitted? Disgust is really a very social emotion.”

I’m voting for socially transmitted; it’s the modern equivalent of tulipmania or hula hoops. At any rate, Malady (appropriate name!) gives a number of examples of over-the-top word avoidance, and ends with an interesting hypothesis; after pointing out that Kurt Andersen “maintains no word aversions of the creep-out variety,” he continues:

New Yorker staff writer David Grann is in the same boat. “I don’t think I’m too conscious of any such aversions,” he says. The same goes for Liberman, Riggle, Fedotova, and Tannenbaum—all people who specialize in working with the written word on a daily basis. Could it be that people who read and write for a living are less likely to freak out when someone says slacks or crevice or panties?

“It’s a fascinating hypothesis, and I’d love to see it tested out,” says Riggle. “You could even extend that by asking if bilinguals are less likely to have” word-aversion issues. “Because one of the things that the study of bilinguals shows us is that bilinguals are much better at knowing deep down that the connection between a word and its meaning is arbitrary. Linguists and writers and people who think about language all the time might be another population that has a more deeply ingrained notion of the arbitrariness of the meaning-word connection, which would maybe be some sort of inoculation against this.”

But like so much about word aversion, we simply don’t know. That’s because there is a somewhat surprising dearth of formal, scholarly research on the subject.

As always, further research is needed.

Comments

  1. I get shudders of rage from helmed ‘directed a film’ and helmer, and also from relatable, but I don’t think that’s the same thing. It’s recrudescent prescriptivism, not visceral disgust.

    The phrase only even appears in our comments four times.

  2. David L says:

    I don’t know if it’s a case of aversion, exactly, but I have long had a great distaste for the words execrable and (even worse) execrably, because there’s no way to pronounce them that doesn’t sound as if you have a whole family of frogs in your throat.

  3. I’d say that’s a perfectly reasonable aversion, even if I don’t share it.

    John W Cowan: When did you sprout the W?

  4. David Marjanović says:

    I don’t think I have any outright aversion, but I don’t like nifty: it sounds like it ought to mean the opposite of what it does – like you’re performing a narial fricative to get some stench out of your nose.

    there’s no way to pronounce them that doesn’t sound as if you have a whole family of frogs in your throat

    That’s the point, isn’t it? As with French écraser?

  5. David L says:

    That’s the point, isn’t it?

    Maybe, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

    For the record, I think nifty is a very cute and apposite word. To me, somehow, it suggests sleight of hand, not odorousness.

  6. Marja Erwin says:

    “seemingly pedestrian, inoffensive words driving some people up the wall”

    … Is this including slurs?

    Some widespread slurs drive me up the wall, and some misused ethnonyms, and some early modern English pronounciations of Latin words, though some of you take issue with other pronunciations.

  7. Does substituting the words when reviewing reports count as aversion? In that case:
    – “oversight” as a verb: eg. “we will oversight the project” -> “we will oversee the project”
    – “learnings” as in “one of the learnings was X” -> “we learnt X”

  8. Is this including slurs?

    No, certainly not, hence the “inoffensive.”

  9. Blame it on my browser. It’s the name by which my bank knows me, and I just had to update my stored credit card on another site, causing it to be the form of my name that pops up first. My books say John Woldemar Cowan and my cards John W Cowan, but for all other purposes I remain, yours truly, John Cowan.

    As for execrable, I like it because of a remark by Poe:

    Mr. Mathews once wrote some sonnets “On Man”, and Mr. Channing some lines on “A Tin Can”, or something of that kind — and if the former gentleman be not the worst poet that ever existed on the face of the earth, it is only because he is not quite so bad as the latter. To speak algebraically: Mr. M. is execrable, but Mr. C. is x+1-ecrable.

  10. up the wall

    Is It drives me spare used in America?

  11. Not that I’ve ever heard.

  12. No go spare either?

  13. Squiffy-Marie von Bladet says:

    Idle: Oh, don’t say ‘tin’ to Rebecca, you know how it upsets her.
    Chapman: Sorry, old horse.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    Never encountered go spare or drives me spare on teh whole wide intarwebz, for what that’s worth.

    For the record, I think nifty is a very cute and apposite word. To me, somehow, it suggests sleight of hand, not odorousness.

    It doesn’t suggest stench to me directly, just being disgusted.

    x+1-ecrable

    I like that.

  15. A summer class I was in circa 1960 was known as ‘the Nifty Gifties.’ I think the word has declined in use over the decades, though not so much as ‘swell’ or ‘groovy.’

  16. Interestingly it’s a cross species phenomenon:

    Igor*: “Frau Bluecher”
    Horses: Whinney!!

    _______________
    * pronounced Eyegor

  17. No go spare either?

    I think I’ve only ever encountered that when reading Terry Pratchett, which makes me think it’s British-only. (Unless it’s a Commonwealth thing…)

  18. And, at least, Aussie:

    The call had come at 2:00 a.m., as so many calls do when you live in Sydney. It drives me spare sometimes, the way the smartest people— museum directors who run internationally renowned institutions or CEOs who can tell you to the cent what the Hang Seng was at on any given day—can’t retain the simple fact that Sydney is generally nine hours ahead of London and fourteen hours ahead of New York.

    I took the T from Logan airport to Harvard Square. I hate driving in Boston. It’s the traffic that drives me spare, and the absolutely terrible manners of the motorists. Other New Englanders refer to Massachusetts drivers as “Massholes.”

    My mother went spare when she found out she’d been given the shove. At first, I felt bad. I assumed she saw the foundation as a last link with Aaron, and I could imagine how painful it would be, to have his family reject her like that.

    Geraldine Brooks
    People of the Book

  19. Interesting; I too have never encountered go spare or drives me spare (that I recall), and I’ve read a lot of material from non-US authors.

  20. A quick look at Google Books shows it used fairly often by British and Irish authors, including (as well as Pratchett) JK Rowling – and some speculation that it is derived from an earlier meaning of “surplus or unwanted” as in “there’s a ham sandwich going spare here if anyone’s still hungry”. (Spike Milligan using both at once, home on leave and looking for a place to stay: “Yes, there’s Doug’s bedroom going spare. I tell her, good, because I’m going spare.”)

    From that you got the meaning of “unemployed” – people rather than sandwiches who are surplus or unwanted – and from that it came to mean the normal reaction to becoming unemployed.

    Another sadly obsolete phrase for “insanely furious” : “Harpic”, after a brand of toilet bleach whose slogan was “clean round the bend”.

  21. Jim Parish says:

    Not exactly aversion, but I’m reminded of Toilet Duck, a toilet-cleaning product which was touted for the “duck-neck” shape of the bottle, which made it easier to apply to various parts of the toilet. Now, I’ve always heard that shape referred to as “goose-neck”, but I can see why the makers of the product avoided that phrase…

  22. AJP Crown says:

    A summer class known as ‘the Nifty Gifties’

    A prime (fixed focal length) 50mm camera lens is supposedly called a nifty fifty except that it’s hard to believe anyone would actually say ‘please pass me my nifty fifty’.

  23. ‘Word aversion’ is just odd to me. It sounds to me like a kind of synthesthesia– one’s ‘disgust’ sense is triggered by input to one’s ‘lexical’ sense. In any case, I’ve never experienced it.

  24. Not to beat a dead horse, but I believe that the aversion to moist is relatively recent. The makers of packaged cake mixes (Duncan Hines, Betty Crocker) used to use “moist” repeatedly to emphasize that their cakes weren’t dried out and sawdusty, not only on the packaging but also in TV commercials, where the word had to be said:

    Duncan Hines:
    “Brownies! Moist, fudgey, chocolaty! Brownies!”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ino85hrE4dQ

    Betty Crocker:
    “High, light, and moist.”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeJ2UrrF2Rk

  25. J.W. Brewer says:

    The google n-gram viewer shows a modest post-1950 decline in “nifty” bottoming out in the mid-’60’s but then rising again sharply to a 2003 peak much higher than the prior peak. I find that a bit weird, because I share the impressionistic sense that the word has been in decline since, I dunno, at least some point in my ’70’s childhood. Although it’s possible that it struck us as the sort of out-of-date slang that should be avoided because it made you sound uncool, but it remained in active and even increasing use by older generational cohorts who didn’t mind being thought uncool by the not-yet-named Gen-X’ers?

  26. More likely because gooseneck is a generic term and so cannot be trademarked.

  27. The main place I remember encountering go spare is EastEnders. I’d assume most Americans have no exposure to it at all.

  28. Not to beat a dead horse, but I believe that the aversion to moist is relatively recent.

    It most certainly is, and I wish it would go away.

  29. Stu Clayton says:

    Skin moisturisers are here to stay.

    Moist toilette tissues too, aka “wet wipes”. Goodbye to corncobs !

  30. ktschwarz says:

    I think I first encountered go spare in a Neil Gaiman story: “Um, this mug of water’s going spare,” I told her, “if you want it?”

    As in there’s a ham sandwich going spare here if anyone’s still hungry, that “if” is a particular type of conditional, which has a funny technical name, it was on Language Log… ah, got it, biscuit conditional.

  31. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Is the thing (about the special popularity of talking about word aversion to moist) that people associate moist with female sexual arousal, so talking about moist calls to mind not just the aversion but also a vague yet prurient sense of titillation, the mélange of which makes for a pleasing conversation topic?

    P.S. I think I find “mélange” a more aversive word than “moist”, personally.

  32. Is the thing (about the special popularity of talking about word aversion to moist) that people associate moist with female sexual arousal

    I doubt it. I mean, the first person to complain about the word (Peever Zero) may have had such an association, but I suspect that since then it’s simply snowballed — people read someone else’s account of hating the word and suddenly they hate it too.

  33. I have no problem with the word “moist,” but I have never found it to be an appealing description of baked goods. To me, hearing that cake or brownies are “moist” has a suggestion that they are soggy or greasy like cheap “chewy” cookies.

  34. Stu Clayton says:

    people associate moist with female sexual arousal

    Guys get moist too. Only a little at the beginning, but then a lot at the end. As enthusiasts have told me, ladies develop more of a hull breach. Neither serving suggestion is particularly well described by “moist”.

  35. Greg Pandatshang says:

    This comment reminds me of the classic dénouement of a thoroughly engrossing romantic novel I read a while back:

    Biff’s throbbing member got moist, too. Only a little at the beginning, but then a lot at the end.

    THE END

    I cannot quite remember the title atm, but it may have been something along the lines of Hull Breach. I seem to recall there were some rather perfunctory sci fi elements.

  36. For my part, I find it impossible to believe that any aesthetic objection to the word moist isn’t connected to some weird, sublimated fear of sex.

    Are any of these moist-o-phobes squeamish around the words hoist, joist, or foist? Methinks, not.

  37. AJP Crown says:

    I have an aversion to squab that I don’t think is cultural. Until I looked it up, I didn’t even know the meaning or I’d forgotten it. Perhaps it simply reminds me of another similar-sounding word with an unpleasant meaning. And perhaps in 30 years everyone will feel funny about words like rump, dump, plump that rhyme with Trump.

  38. David Marjanović says:

    Moist shares with nifty the sequence nasal-vowel-fricative. Nasals and fricatives seem to have something of an aversion to each other…

    Peever Zero

    FTW.

  39. David M, are there any widespread German word aversions you know of?

  40. Jeez, I was hoping it was only an English-language thing, but I guess it wouldn’t be surprising if the contagion had spread.

  41. oi appears only in loanwords, typically from French or Greek, and so oiCC is probably quite rare, other than plurals of words ending in -oid, which is a productive suffix.

  42. Jeffry House says:

    I’m in Ontario, and don’t think I’ve ever heard the couplet “going spare”. I asked my wife, Anglo Canadian going way back, what it meant to her, and she responded: “Is it like going commando?”

  43. Etienne says:

    About “Moist” and its associations: it is perhaps worth mentioning that in the pilot episode of the (excellent) television show DEAD LIKE ME (mentioned in the Slate article: first broadcast on June 27 2003) the viewpoint character’s mother is said to hate the word “moist” because it sounds “pornographic”:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYH52hRbwJg

    I wonder: could “Peever Zero” (nice term!) have encountered the adjective once too often in some Romance novel and come to dislike the word as a result?

  44. J.W. Brewer says:

    To Greg Pandatshang’s point, this vintage LL post from 2007 includes anecdotes about aversion not just to the isolated word “moist” but to the NP “moist panties.” So I doubt that that’s the only thing going on but it seems likely to be in the mix for at least some set of those with the aversion to “moist.” http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004835.html

  45. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Just to be clear, my hypothesis is not that sexual associations cause word aversion to “moist”, but that, given that the aversion exists, the sexual associations inspire the enthusiasm for talking about it. It may very well also be in the mix for causing the aversion in the first place, but that’s a separate claim.

  46. Bathrobe says:

    I hate the sound of ‘damp’ (sounds damned uncomfortable) more than ‘moist’, but neither worries me as a word.

    I was reading recently about someone who disliked the word ‘tremblor’. I personally dislike it because it’s so blatantly American. But apparently it’s only used in the press as a synonym for ‘earthquake’ — Americans apparently don’t use it in everyday life.

  47. Yeah, that’s purely an official/journalistic word.

  48. I was reading recently about someone who disliked the word ‘tremblor’

    More usually spelled temblor. I agree that the word isn’t used in spoken English.

  49. marie-lucie says:

    Is t(r)emblor different from tremor? I only know the latter.

  50. Temblor is a borrowing from Spanish, and spread from the southwestern U.S. to the rest of the country. The form tremblor is non-standard and probably arises from contamination with tremor, which is direct from Latin. So the words are etymological doublets. However, temblor means only ‘earthquake’, at least in English; it does not have the metaphorical meanings of tremor, nor can it be used of vibrations other than those of the Earth.

  51. marie-lucie says:

    David M: Moist shares with nifty the sequence nasal-vowel-fricative. Nasals and fricatives seem to have something of an aversion to each other…

    Do they? Just off the top of my head:

    – mass (x 2), moss, most, must (x 2), move, mauve, muffin, miffed, miss (x 2), mission, mizzen, muzzle, mussel, muscle, mistletoe, Muslim/Moslem, muslin, math, mother, mouth, moth, mascot, mash, machine, miscellaneous, mischief, Michelle

    – smash, smother, smooth, smith,

    – nose, nasal, nasty, nation, notion, novel, navel, nave, knave, knife/knives; enough,

    – sniff, snuff, sneeze, snazzy,

    Etienne: the viewpoint character’s mother is said to hate the word “moist” because it sounds “pornographic”

    I wonder what ‘gender’ the screenwriter was. I would bet a he. In 50-odd years in English Canada I dont think I have ever heard a woman use the word ‘moist’ or comment about it in a sexual context. That seems to be a male interest.

  52. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks JC!

  53. gwenllian says:

    I dont think I have ever heard a woman use the word ‘moist’ or comment about it in a sexual context. That seems to be a male interest.

    From what I remember of the show, the character was supposed to be pretty uptight, and the word aversion was to show just how prudish and paranoid she was about these things.

  54. Ointment seems to trigger word aversion too, and it also is oiCC.

  55. Bathrobe says:

    Apparently Jonathan Franzen dislikes the word “partner”.

    He played a game of chicken with the woman he calls his “spouse equivalent” (“I hate the word ‘partner’ so much”) (New York Times: “Jonathan Franzen Is Fine With All of It”).

    But I guess this doesn’t totally fit the criterion of this post…

  56. David Marjanović says:

    David M, are there any widespread German word aversions you know of?

    I don’t think so. (Word rage definitely occurs, but that’s different.) That said, I’m currently at a conference, so barely legally sane on average.

    Ointment seems to trigger word aversion too, and it also is oiCC.

    What about boink, then?

  57. marie-lucie says:

    gwenllian: the character was supposed to be pretty uptight, and the word aversion was to show just how prudish and paranoid she was about these things.

    I doubt that a woman of this description would actually utter the word “pornographic”.

  58. Greg Pandatshang says:

    I don’t know, I’m a man, and I’m fairly certain I’ve never heard anyone use the word ‘moist’ or comment about it in a sexual context, either … except specifically with regard to word aversion. And yet the sexual context of the word aversion has always seemed apparent to me … most likely because it was already explicitly mentioned the first time I heard about word aversion (I don’t recall exactly) or maybe just because I’ve got a dirty mind (as my heavily dog-eared and underlined copy of Hull Breach might attest).

  59. Re “partner”: I assume you’re right and not liking that word isn’t due to it’s sound. I previously have encountered cases of people not liking the use of “partner” for “spouse” or “girl / boy friend” because it makes love sound like a business relationship.

  60. The word I can’t stand is “ramekin” and I have no idea why. I don’t recall any traumatic ramekin related incidents as a child, and the very similar-sounding word “manikin” causes me no distress at all – nor do the individual components “ram”, “me” or “kin”. I can think of no rational explanation for my aversion at all, and I haven’t heard of anyone else disliking “ramekin”, so I don’t think I’m subconsciously trying to be trendy… But who knows.

    Thankfully not a word I encounter very often.

  61. I didn’t even know that the r-word was the name of that object; I have a number of them, but no name for them except “tiny little bowl” or the like. By the way, is it only the sound of the word that you’re averse to, or the sight of it also?

  62. AJP Crown says:

    I have a fairly strong dislike of Squab, Wendell & Schmutz; the words, not the firm of solicitors.

  63. Etienne says:

    Marie-Lucie: No, this uptight woman (named “Joy”, ironically) does not actually utter the word “pornographic”: the viewpoint character (her daughter) does (see the link in my previous comment).

    The series was filmed in Vancouver, incidentally, and even I (who have never lived there) occasionally recognized parts of the city.

  64. marie-lucie says:

    Merci Etienne! this makes more sense.

  65. marie-lucie says:

    Morag, you could try the French equivalent: un ramequin (usually pronounced in 2 syllables, like un mannequin).

    JC, it is not a bowl (which would have a mostly rounded bottom), but a small dish with a flat bottom and a vertical surround (?), used to bake individual portions of custard or similar dessert.

  66. Well, not quite vertical, and often fluted on the outside, which is why I called it a bowl. It’s true that the inside bottom is flat.

  67. marie-lucie says:

    Hans: people not liking the use of “partner” for “spouse” or “girl / boy friend” because it makes love sound like a business relationship.

    In French there are now common substitutes: la compagne, le compagnon, both covered under English “companion”. Those words (already existing in the languages) do not suggest a business relationship. nor a childhood friendship, but equality among adults.

  68. David L says:

    Ointment is a perfectly lovely word. Very apt, very descriptive of the substance concerned. Like emollient.

    Unfortunately, the word emoluments, which has been in the news lately, also makes me think of soothing unguents and the like.

  69. Bathrobe says:

    Well, receiving emoluments can be very soothing.

  70. Emolient ointments. Oleaginous unguents. But neither can cure moist panties.

  71. Lots of portmanteaus, especially when concocted by professional wordmakers: broasted, webinar, netizen, Ebonics, celebutante, edutainment.

  72. A personal data point on “moist”, or rather “moisture”: At the age of 5 or 6 (that would be about the year 1960) I learned that I had been laboring under a misapprehension about the word. Somebody told me that it could mean plain old water when I had been thinking of it as being necessarily slimy and disgusting.

  73. Interesting! That’s well before the aversion mania; you were an early adopter. Maybe even Peever Zero!

  74. David Marjanović says:

    😮
    It’s right there in his name and all!!!

  75. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Only a linguist would call that zero!

  76. Lars (the original one) says:

    The empty set is von Neumann‘s definition of zero. I don’t think he got around to linguistics.

  77. By the way, is it only the sound of the word that you’re averse to, or the sight of it also?

    I think mainly the sound but it’s hard to see the word without “hearing” it in my head, so I don’t particularly enjoy reading it either. And I feel perfectly neutral about the pronunciation of the French word, but I think the spelling is too close to the English word to turn off my Anglophone inner monologue when I see it written.

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