Why do we love to hate certain words?

Photo: Sauli Pillay

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode

Kavita Pillay: A heads up: this episode includes words that some listeners may find abhorrent. Nothing explicit.

Unidentified voice: I loathe the word ‘fascia’, meaning connective tissue between the skin and muscles.

Kavita Pillay: Like I said, nothing explicit, just maybe…ew! Or not?

Unidentified voice: I really wish we could just banish all words that start with j-u-n. So June, junk, jungle, junket.

Kavita Pillay: And for reasons you may not fully understand.

Unidentified voice: It’s just a really unsavory sound. It just makes me feel a little bit queasy

Unidentified voice: There’s something of a smugness and a small minded quality that these words seem to express

Patrick Cox: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle, stories of languages and the people who speak them.

Kavita Pillay: Why is it that some people cringe at seemingly ordinary words? Is it because of how they sound? Or is it the meaning that bugs us? Or something else?

Patrick Cox: What are we talking about here? Taboo words? Racial Epithets? Business jargon, that kind of thing?

Kavita Pillay: I think we get why we would hate taboo words, racial epithets, even business jargon. So, there’s context there, right? They, they have history. Business jargon can feel meaningless, or maybe you associate it with your job, and you got Chad in middle management using words like “leverage” or “stakeholders” or “ideate.”

Patrick Cox: It’s always Chad.

Kavita Pillay: It is always Chad. Sorry Chad. So, it makes sense why you would hate words when there is unpleasant context. You associate it with them. But hatred of these kinds of words there’s a term form.

Mark Liberman: We’ve coined the term, “word rage.”

Patrick Cox: Word rage? That sounds like road rage. Is it, is it, a similar thing?

Kavita Pillay: Exactly

Mark Liberman: It does seem to be a form of anger and it’s socially directed.

Kavita Pillay: Mark Liberman is a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. And as far as I can tell, he’s one of the first researchers to observe the really strong reactions that people have to certain kinds of words, and he uses the term, “word rage” for this anger that people feel about business jargon or the misuse of “literally.”

Mark Liberman: They feel that some kind of social norm has been violated by the people who do that, who talk that way. And usually it’s a group that they otherwise dislike, like “kids today,” or sports announcers or managers.

Patrick Cox: It’s kind of a pet peeve, right?

Kavita Pillay: Exactly, and a pet peeve is different from another kind of word hatred that Mark and others call “word aversion.” Have you listened to the Grammar Girl podcast?

Patrick Cox: Oh yeah, I love that. Mignon Fogarty. Great podcast that tells you about grammar. It’s not judgmental, really entertaining.

Kavita Pillay: So, she recently did an episode in which she talked about why do people hate certain words, and she spoke with a psychologist named Jade Wu who had this helpful distinction.

Jade Wu: The way I think about it is if the word brings about this reaction, no matter the context, then maybe that’s word aversion; whereas if it’s okay in some contexts — for example I hear a lot of people say that they really don’t like it when people say “literally” when they don’t mean literally, when they mean figuratively. So that seems to me like a pet peeve.

Patrick Cox: So what’s an example of word aversion?

Kavita Pillay: OK here’s a list. Why don’t you read it and then we’ll talk about it. I’m going to send it to you in a text message.

Patrick Cox: Okay.

Patrick Cox: OK here goes: Tidbit, blouse, wrinkle, gorgeous, chuckle, chit chat, pugilist, luggage, dollop, crevice, slacks. They’re just…ordinary words.

Kavita Pillay: So this list is a list gathered from hundreds of comments on message boards and comments from sections of articles about word aversion. Like, people get really riled up about this and want to submit their own examples. It’s very individual but people will often follow up with a comment that say things like, “It just makes me cringe, I don’t know why.” Or, “I can’t even stand to see it in writing.” And I admit that I’ve got a few like that.

Patrick Cox: What? You mean like you’ve got a few words like that — that make you cringe?

Kavita Pillay: There are a handful of ordinary words that just drive me crazy. I will go through all sorts of linguistic hurdles to avoid them and I sometimes hold a slight grudge against people who use them. I really try not to. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have this. It’s just a handful a words. Just a handful.

Patrick Cox: OK now you’re going to say them out loud. You’re not leaving this room until you say them out loud.

Kavita Pillay: Okay…. I’m going to go from easier to more difficult. OK there’s four of them. The first one — deep breath.

Patrick Cox: Oh my God!

Kavita Pillay: I’m just going to do it fast like a bandaid. The first one is “batch.” I hate that word.

Patrick Cox: Batch?

Kavita Pillay: Yeah, It’s just — ugh. It’s just annoying.

Patrick Cox: Oh God, I’ve probably use that with you, haven’t I?

Kavita Pillay: No, I don’t think so. But I think —

Patrick Cox: You would’ve remembered?

Kavita Pillay: Or, you’ve accumulated enough good will in my life that I’ve forgiven it. The next one is, “supper.” What a stupid word! The next two, I’m just going to spell. One is M-E-A-L. This next one is

Patrick Cox: I can, I can’t say it, right? No.

Kavita Pillay: OK. It’s better in a British accent, just say it.

Patrick Cox: No, no, I’ll hold off until I hear the last one.

Kavita Pillay: The last one is S-N-A-C-K. Ugh! The best description I’ve read for what it feels like, because there is a very physical, it’s a visceral — it’s just like an instantaneous reaction in the body. The best description I’ve come across is someone who wrote, “It’s like seeing a spider on your arm and you suddenly realize that the spider has been there for a while.” You probably feel shivers. Ugh!

Patrick Cox: Yeah, no, I get it. Although I quite like spiders so.

Kavita Pillay: Okay, so the metaphor that occurs to me then that might resonate with you, is cilantro aversion.

Patrick Cox: I love cilantro.

Kavita Pillay: I do too. I love it, I eat it, add it by the fistful to food. But there is a minority of people for whom cilantro tastes like soap.

Patrick Cox: Yeah, my sister-in-law, she hates cilantro. And I think she showed me at some point that there was some research into this aversion to cilantro and other foods. Is that right?

Kavita Pillay: Right. So, there is a chemical reason why some minority of people just can’t stand cilantro. There’s research that supports it.

Patrick Cox: So, if there’s a scientific basis for cilantro aversion, does that mean there’s also one for word aversion?

Kavita Pillay: The strongest research in word aversion has focused on one word.

(Male voices) Moist…Moist…Moist…Moist!

Kavita Pillay: So, that was some of People Magazine’s “sexiest men” saying what’s basically the most hated word in English. And if you’ve watched TV over the past 15 years or so, you may have seen this word played for laughs,

Saturday Night Live sketch: We hate the word moist (MOIST!)

Kavita Pillay: …like on Saturday Night Live

How I Met Your Mother clip: Moist (laughter)…moist (laughter)…moist ) laughter…

Kavita Pillay: Or on How I Met Your Mother

Inside the Actor’s studio clip: What is your least favorite word? Moist…moist…moist…That was my least favorite word!

Kavita Pillay: Or Inside the Actor’s studio.

Patrick Cox: Wow, how many shows have done this?!

Kavita Pillay: I mean, we could be here awhile. “Moist” has become this comedy bomb that you drop to make people cringe. It wasn’t always the case.

Dead Like Me clip: She’s pathologically afraid of balloons and hates the word “moist.” She thinks it’s pornographic.

Kavita Pillay: So, that right there seems to be one of the first — if not the first — pop culture reference to moist aversion.

Dead Like Me clip: This is delicious…and moist! (musical trill)

Paul Thibodeau: There is a show, Dead Like Me, that came out in 2003, where the main character, knows how to push the buttons of her mom. And one of those buttons is an aversion to “moist” in her mom.

Kavita Pillay: This is Paul Thibodeau.

Paul Thibodeau: And I am an associate professor of psychology at Oberlin College.

Kavita Pillay: And he’s the one who pointed me to the Dead Like Me clip, but I wanted to talk with him because of a paper he published

Paul Thibodeau: The title is, A Moist Crevice for Word Aversion: In Semantics, Not Sounds. And I picked “crevice” because that’s another word that people often report as aversive.

Patrick Cox: Crevice! That was on the list you gave me! Is Paul himself afflicted with word aversion?

Kavita Pillay: No, and he says that word aversion, it’s not a super mainstream topic in psycholinguistics

Paul Thibodeau: I’m constantly interacting with people who do find words aversive. In particular the word “moist.” A lot of students at Oberlin find that word really aversive and difficult to hear.

Kavita Pillay: And he’s interested in psychology and language, so he realized that researching the topic of “moist” aversion might be a way to engage students in the nitty gritty of things like statistics and research methods.

Patrick Cox: So how do you even begin to test people’s aversion to just a single word?

Kavita Pillay: You can consider different possibilities.

Paul Thibodeau: So one idea is that it’s the sound of the word that induces the aversion — so the harsh, sort of “oi” dipthong contrasted against the harsher consonant, “st” at the end, might contribute to the aversion.

Kavita Pillay: Oftentimes when people talk about aversion to the word “moist,” they think it’s because the sound of the word bothers them. And it turned out that there wasn’t much support for that in Paul’s experiments, because other words that he tested with similar sounds, like “hoist,” “joist,” “foist,” “rejoice” — they’re not aversive. So the next hypothesis is to look at semantics, the meaning.

Paul Thibodeau: How we use the word — what its semantic associates are — some of the associations with “moist” that could be negative relate to sex or bodily function?

Kavita Pillay: People also seem to think that “moist” aversion might be tied to some sort of sexual association. Paul’s research also did not support that, but it did show support for “moist” aversion being tied to an aversion to bodily functions. So on that note, I wondered about the word “oyster,” because it has a lot of the same sound properties as “moist.” No one wants to eat a dry oyster! You know, what is an oyster if not a moist, raw, slimy, creature that is still alive when you eat it, and it might make you violently ill and lead to some really unpleasant bodily functions? But, Paul’s experiments did not test the word “oyster.” So further research on that is needed.

I did wonder about moist versus its closest synonyms. So, Paul says there’s no widespread reports of aversion to words like “wet,” or “damp.” But when I thought about it, there’s this key difference between “wet,” “damp” and “moist.” You know, if you say, “The sidewalk is wet,” the source of wetness is external to the sidewalk, right? Rain versus sprinkler. If you say, “The towel is damp,” the source of the dampness is external to the towel. But if you say, “The cake is moist”…

Patrick Cox: Oh right, that’s coming from inside the cake.

Kavita Pillay: Exactly.

Patrick Cox: So, maybe people just have this instinctual sense that moistness comes from within.

Kavita Pillay: Right, It’s like that horror movie, where the call is coming from inside the house!

Patrick Cox: Okay, I get the “ew” factor now.

Kavita Pillay: And this idea of moisture being something that we just sense that it’s coming from inside, that resonated with Paul.

Paul Thibodeau: Yeah, I actually hadn’t thought of that before but that’s a really nice insight.

Kavita Pillay: But Mark Liberman — who’s the linguist from UPenn — he had some doubts about this.

Mark Liberman: Well, that that makes a great deal of sense. But you have to apply the same kind of insight to explain what’s wrong with “luggage” and “pugilist” and “hardscrabble” and so on.

Kavita Pillay: But unlike “luggage” and such, there’s this question of whether “moist” aversion is socially contagious. You know, when you hear “moist” as a joke on John Oliver, and then see a page on Facebook titled “I hate the word ‘moist,’” with 19,000 members, and then you see multiple articles on what an awful word this is on BuzzFeed, then you’re absorbing the idea that this word is not kosher. And that could help explain why “moist” aversion is on the rise.

Patrick Cox: Yeah it really seems to be a group phenomenon. So, who are these people? Who’s in this group?

Kavita Pillay: That is one part of Paul’s research that stood out to me.

Paul Thibodeau: So the prototypical “moist” averse participant is sort of a younger female who’s a little bit disgusted by bodily function and a little bit more neurotic than sort of average in the population.

Kavita Pillay: And how is neuroticism defined?

Paul Thibodeau: So, neuroticism is defined as the tendency to worry. A tendency to worry: I guess this is the most succinct definition.

Kavita Pillay: Patrick, I am maybe a little “moist” averse, though I think it’s because I’ve absorbed some of the social messaging around this word. But I cannot stop thinking about the fact that it’s mostly females ages 20–30 who are a little bit disgusted by bodily function and a little more prone to worry than the average person who are most likely to be “moist” averse. So, I’m going to pull some big sister rank here and say, it is time for some real talk. Like, capital R, capital T. Real Talk.

Film clip: Growing up is fun, but some of the things Molly used to do seem a little silly now.

Kavita Pillay: This is a short film about menstruation from the 50s.

Film clip: She’s changed from a child to an adult, and it’s a little confusing at times.

Kavita Pillay: But Molly has questions:

Film clip: “Ms. Jansen, is it true that people can tell when you’re menstruating?”

“No, it isn’t, but you should be more careful than ever about personal cleanliness, and change your underwear more often, and be sure and use a deodorant. And pay more attention to your hair and your nails. And plan to wear your prettiest dress.”

Kavita Pillay: So let me translate into modern parlance for my younger sisters. It’s basically: “Hey ladies, you’re going to bleed for five days and you probably feel like lukewarm garbage, but it’s time to slay some looks, get a mani-pedi, and slap on some Secret Clinical Strength.” I mean, I don’t even know what to say about the “change your underwear more often” thing! But you know, women who were raised with these kinds of ideas about menstruation, would have been raising girls growing up in the 80s and 90s. And that’s my generation, and we grew up with messages like this:

Clip: “Tampax-Discreet”

Clip: “Playtex-Discreet”

Kavita Pillay: “Discreet” That’s code for: “Don’t talk about it. Don’t offend anyone. Be as inconspicuous as possible.”

Patrick Cox: Because?

Kavita Pillay: Because the consequences of people finding out that you have your period are bad! This is a recent Saturday Night Live parody commercial.

Saturday Night Live sketch: Psst. Do you have a, you know, a tampon? Oh heck yeah. No, not here. Someone will see. Relax.

Kavita Pillay: Supposedly it was cut for time so it didn’t even air, and it’s only available online.

Saturday Night Live sketch:

Woman 1: “Is that a…piece of dog poop?!

Woman 2: “Open it!”

Woman 1: “What do you mean, open it?”

Woman 2: “Just look inside!”

Kavita Pillay: And lo…

Woman 1: “There’s a tampon in here!”

Woman 2: “Yup, but they won’t know; they’ll just see the poop!”

Kavita Pillay: I realize that this was a journey. And It was not one that I expected to go on when I started looking into word aversion, you know? I did not expect that all word aversion roads would lead to the word “moist,” and that I’d be thinking about gynecological functions and how rooted they are in moisture. But if it’s true that young women who have some schooling and are prone to worry and are averse to bodily function are more likely to be “moist” averse, I thought it important to turn that rock over and look at what’s going on underneath. By the way, once you’re old enough to not have to worry about things, you’re an old woman, a “dried up” old woman. Have you ever heard any refer to a “dried up old man?”

Patrick Cox: No, I. can’t say I have.

Kavita Pillay: I rest my case…

Kavita Pillay: So I want to go back to this thing we just talked about, the traits, you know, youth, gender, neuroticism. In a way, it seems to me like misogyny could be at play in terms of “moist” aversion.

Paul Thibodeau: Yes, I think there’s probably some role for misogyny in “moist” aversion. So I think the cultural expectations around gender and bodily function are just very different for boys and girls and men and women. And I think there’s a lot of additional pressure that’s probably put on girls and women to hide issues related to bodily function — or just hide bodily function and effluvia in general and to feel shame and guilt around it. And I think that’s probably playing a role here.

Patrick Cox: Do you think there’s a solution — a cure — for word aversion?

Kavita Pillay: I asked Paul about this and he suggested exposure therapy. You know, that’s an effective way for people who have phobias to deal with their phobias. You could be — if you have a phobia of spiders or snakes — you could spend time around them, you could learn about them, you could learn about their value. You could realize that your reaction is maybe overblown. And at least with the words that I’m averse to, I think having thought about them a lot for this episode: I’m not going to start using them, I’m not going to start loving them. But at worst, I’m resigned to them. I think I’m at best I can laugh about myself a little bit more. If anything, that itself, there’s some merit in that.

This episode of Subtitle was reported by Kavita Pillay. The podcast version of the story is available here and on Apple podcasts.

Subtitle’s sound designer is Tina Tobey. Thanks to Michelle Cove, Eric Schuman, Indira Pillay, Wade Roush, Isabel Hinder, Ken Taylor, Brett Altschul,, Chandra McCann, Rachel Youdelman, Joyce Maxwell, Chris Bolton, Julie Sedivy and our partners at the Linguistic Society of America and the Hub & Spoke audio collective.

Subtitle is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod

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A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod

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