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Environment & Science

Does the word 'moist' make you cringe? Here's why.

Moist car hood photographed by Sean Egiziano.
Moist car hood photographed by Sean Egiziano.
Sean Egiziano via Flickr

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It has been described as the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.

Among the most averse, it elicits reactions of "visceral disgust" and outcries of, "Eww!" and "Yuck!"

People Magazine 2013 sexiest men say 'moist'

Not even People Magazine's sexiest men of 2013 could make the word sexy. But what is it about the five letter word that literally sets people on edge? 

Is it the sound of it? Or the connotation?

Paul Thibodeau led the study A Moist Crevice for Word Aversion: In Semantics Not Sounds, to get to the bottom of just that. Two-thousand five hundred unique subjects participated in the study, which took place over four years, to lead to some enlightening conclusions.

Professor Thibodeau joined the show to discuss his findings and shed some light on why "moist" has such a bad rep.

Interview Highlights:

How did 'moist' earn the status of nails on a chalkboard?

I think there's absolutely a generational effect going on. I think there's a kind of cohort effect, and we have some data that supports that interpretation. So people who are younger, more educated, females in particular are more likely to report this experience that the word 'moist' drives them crazy.

Some hypotheses on why the words were aversive:

We asked some very specific research questions and our goal was to figure out whether this aversion stemmed more from the sounds of the word and that's kind of an explanation you get from the people who find the word aversive. This long vowel sound juxtaposed against a harsh consonant, for some people elicit this nails on a chalkboard experience.

Another possibility the study looked into, which actually helped them reach the study's conclusion:

Another was that the connotation was driving the aversion, either a connotation with sex or bodily function. And so we had people evaluate words that describe disgusting bodily functions, words like 'phlegm' and 'vomit' and 'puke.' And people who found moist aversive also found those words relatively aversive, more aversive than people who said that moist didn't bother them. And so that seemed to support the idea that moist was partly aversive with its association with bodily function.

Who is most likely to deal with some kind of word aversion?

So, we found that younger in particular the people in sort of the 20 to 30 age range, people with more education, females, people who scored a little bit higher on a measure of neuroticism, which is one of the big five personality traits. So, those were all personality and demographic factors that would predict this aversive experience. And we also found that context mattered.

To hear the full interview, click the blue play button above.