Snap, crackle, eww.

For as long as words have existed, there likely have been some that rankle our ears and send a cringe straight up our spines. Turn to Google (or Bing if you’re in a charitable mood), and you can find list after list of the most disgusting and despised words known to man. Here’s a few choice selections courtesy of writer Nico Lang, who scoured through these lists in 2013: Pustule, Jowls, Roaches, and Moist, a perennial winner of the category.

But for all our perverse fascination with the disgusting, there’s been little scientific exploration into how and why certain words set off our groan alarm. In 2014, a team of researchers decided to remedy that, presenting their findings from an “exploratory investigation of word aversion” at the annual conference of the Cognitive Science Society.

What’s In A Word?

The team, led by Paul Thibodeau of Oberlin College, devised a series of three experiments, two online and one with in-person college students, focusing primarily on “moist.” In addition to quantifying people’s disgust of the word, the researchers sought to pin down the dimensions of aversion. Across the studies, which involved over 800 participants, anywhere from 13 to 20 percent reported an aversion to “moist.”

But while many volunteers cited the sound of the word as the reason for their disdain, (“it just has an ugly sound that makes whatever you’re talking about sound gross,”) Thibodeau and his colleagues found it was more complicated than that.

Namely, it was largely due to context. The first experiment demonstrated that when people were forced to rank “moist” right after they saw words that were either sexual or pleasant, but normally not associated with it, such as “paradise,” they saw it as more averse than when it followed related positive words, such as “cake,” or unrelated negative words, such as “retarded.” Additionally, while words that sounded like “moist” (“foist”) didn’t provoke a similar reaction from moist-averse volunteers, synonyms like “damp” did. The idea that the moist-averse were particularly sensitive to disgust didn’t hold any water either, since there was no overall difference in how they ranked other taboo words.

So why the mix-up in motivation? “Generally, it seems like people react so quickly and viscerally to the word that they think it must be the sound of the word, rather than the semantic associations, that causes them to cringe,” Thibodeau told Medical Daily. “But it does seem like the semantic associations are more influential.”

The second experiment, which asked volunteers to write down the words they most linked to “moist,” further clarified these associations. “In particular, associations to bodily function seem to be the issue, as opposed to associations with sex, which is another common target of speculation,” Thibodeau said. “In my studies, participants who identify as moist-averse tend to find words like ‘phlegm’ and ‘vomit’ more unpleasant than non-averse participants. But they don't find words with sexual connotations more aversive.”

The second experiment also found that younger and more neurotic volunteers were more likely to find “moist” displeasing, while particularly blirtatious folk (scientific lingo for fast-talkers), were marginally less thrown off by it.

Not to say that the phonics of a word don’t matter at all when it comes to the disgust factor. “[P]eople don't generally report aversions to words like ‘wet’ or ‘damp’ (at least to the same degree) so there may be some role for the sound — at least in helping the aversion spread. There is some evidence that thinking about the word deliberately, as aversive, may contribute to the aversion. The sound of the word may trigger that kind of reflection,” explained Thibodeau.

Getting To Know “Moist”

Aside from forcing ourselves to conjure up thoughts of cakes instead of bodily secretions when seeing or hearing “moist,” Thibodeau addressed whether rote repetition might help dispel our aversion toward it.

“It may very well be the case that repeating it over and over again could make it lose its negative connotation. There is a fair amount of work on ‘semantic satiation,' in which repeating a word over and over again causes it to lose meaning. Typically, I think those kinds of effects are fairly short-term.” he replied. “It’s possible that repeating the word...could also be a type of exposure treatment. By repeating it over and over again, and realizing that nothing bad happens, people may lose the negative association. So those are at least two ways in which repetition might counter the aversion.”

As he notes, though, no other scientists have taken the time to explore that particular tactic as of yet. Thibodeau himself has conducted more research on word aversion, which he hopes to publish in the near future.

For now, it seems that moist’s status as the word everyone loves to hate is safe and sound.

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