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Which is worse: moist or phlegm? New study reveals grossest words

A new paper explores the reasons why certain words give us the willies.
/ Source: TODAY

The phrase "moist chocolate cake" makes some of us imagine a yummy dessert.

But for others, the word "moist" brings on a case of the willies so strong, even Betty Crocker can't save it.

About 10-20 percent of American English speakers find "moist" to be one of the language's grossest words, according to a new study — and the reasons why are intriguing.

dictionary definition of the word "moist"

“The people who identified as not liking ["moist"] were pretty likely to say ‘eww’ or ‘yuck’ or ‘gross’,” says the study's author, Paul Thibodeau, assistant professor of psychology at Oberlin College.

When it comes right down to it, says Thibodeau, "moist," and words like it, remind us too much of our bodies. “It seems like the association to disgusting bodily functions that "moist" kind of has is driving people’s aversion to the word."

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Thibodeau asked American English speakers to participate in five experiments to understand why "moist" inspires such revulsion. One in five of the participants reported an aversion to the word and their responses showed they genuinely felt disgust.

Who hates "moist" the most? Well-educated young women. That may be because so many of them are online.

"I think there is probably a social component. It seems to be spreading through social media as people share their opinion about 'moist,'” Thibodeau says.

A universal phenomenon

The paper's findings don't surprise Amee Shah, director of the Cross Cultural Speech, Language and Acoustics Lab at Stockton University. “I think there are these commonplace words that are cringe-worthy across the board. It is pretty universal. Every language seems to have it."

Some people loathe words because they're outdated, or used as slurs, or because they carry a connotation that makes people uncomfortable, says Shah. And, Thibodeau's paper reinforces that.

"Moist" made the list because that's how language evolves, says Shah.

"It got associated with a different context and that is what now people are relating to...[It's] not so much the sound of it but the meaning is what really annoys people."

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Interestingly, while the study didn’t examine whether British or Australian English speakers recoil at "moist," Thibodeau has heard anecdotally that they do as well.

Other icky words

The paper examined how people felt about taboo words, curse words, and words specifically describing sex acts and body parts.

It also picked apart how a word sounds. The negative reaction to "moist," for example, doesn't appear to stem from the sound of it. The same people who recoil at "moist," were perfectly fine with "foist," "hoist," and "rejoice."

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It also doesn't appear to be about an association to sex the word might have for people. "Moist" haters didn't respond negatively to words like "horny," "vagina," or "penis."

But there were plenty of other words that made the icky list, including:

  • Puke
  • Murderer
  • Muggy
  • Dank
  • Sticky
  • Damp
  • Crevice
  • Wet
  • Armpit
  • Phlegm

Other words ran the gamut of slurs and obscenities and are far too NSFW to be reprinted here.