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Why do people self-report an aversion to words like " moist " ? The present study represents an initial scientific exploration into the phenomenon of word aversion by investigating its prevalence and cause. We find that as many as 20% of the population equates hearing the word " moist " to the sound of fingernails scratching a chalkboard. This population often speculates that phonological properties of the word are the cause of their displeasure. One tantalizing possibility is that words like " moist " are aversive because speaking them engages facial muscles that correspond to expressions of disgust. However, three experiments suggest that semantic features of the word – namely, associations with disgusting bodily functions – underlie peoples' unpleasant experience. This finding broadens our understanding of language and contributes to a growing literature on the cognitive processes relating to highly valenced and arousing words.
An Exploratory Investigation of Word Aversion
Paul H. Thibodeau (
Christopher Bromberg (
Oberlin College Department of Psychology
120 West Lorain St; Oberlin, OH 44074
Robby Hernandez (
Zachary Wilson (
Trinity University Department of Psychology
One Trinity Place; San Antonio, TX 78212
Why do people self-report an aversion to words like “moist”?
The present study represents an initial scientific exploration
into the phenomenon of word aversion by investigating its
prevalence and cause. We find that as many as 20% of the
population equates hearing the word “moistto the sound of
fingernails scratching a chalkboard. This population often
speculates that phonological properties of the word are the
cause of their displeasure. One tantalizing possibility is that
words like “moist” are aversive because speaking them
engages facial muscles that correspond to expressions of
disgust. However, three experiments suggest that semantic
features of the word namely, associations with disgusting
bodily functions underlie peoples’ unpleasant experience.
This finding broadens our understanding of language and
contributes to a growing literature on the cognitive processes
relating to highly valenced and arousing words.
Keywords: Word aversion; lexical association; affective
language; taboo
Many people report that they find words like “moist,”
“slacks,” and “luggage” acutely aversive. They describe the
experience of hearing these words as similar to hearing nails
scratch a chalkboard, often claiming that the sound of the
word itself triggers their visceral reaction. Attention to this
phenomenon has spread virally through social and
traditional media in recent years. The word “moist,” for
example, has been the subject of a Facebook page (called “I
HATE the word MOIST”) with over 3,000 followers and
was rated as the least liked word in the English language by
a Mississippi State Poll (Ward, 2009); feature articles have
been written in Slate Magazine (Malady, 2013) and The
New Yorker (Greenman, 2012); and popular TV shows like
“How I Met Your Mother” (“Stuff”) and “The New Girl”
(“Birthday”) have devoted entire plot-lines to the comic
consequences of word aversion.
The present study represents an initial scientific
exploration into the phenomenon. Here, we address
foundational questions: 1) Approximately what proportion
of the population reports an aversion to words like “moist”?
2) Is aversiveness a dimension of words that can be
measured in a behavioral task or is it defined exclusively by
self-report? 3) What makes a word aversive? The referent?
The sound? Some combination of the two? 4) And are there
individual difference variables that predict who will
experience word aversion? We have designed a series of
studies that endeavor to provide a first step toward
answering these important questions.
Of particular interest to us is uncovering the cause of
word aversion, for which two hypotheses have been
proposed. One possibility is that phonological properties of
certain words are inherently unpleasant. This is an
explanation that people with an aversion to the word
“moist” often provide: for instance, one person, speculating
on their aversion draws attention to “the ‘oy sound
juxtaposed to ‘ss’ and ‘tt’. It's not a word that sounds
pleasant. Neither does hoist or foist (quotation from a
participant in Experiment 1). Psychologists and linguistics
generally view sounds in a language as arbitrary with no
inherent meaning (Hockett, 1960). However, some have
argued that sound symbolism is a natural byproduct of
enculturation in a language (Friedrich, 1979) and cross-
cultural studies have found some evidence of sound
symbolism beyond onomatopoeia (Nuckols, 1999). One
tantalizing possibility is that words like “moist” are aversive
because speaking them engages facial muscles that
correspond to expressions of disgust (Buck, 1980; Strack,
Martin, & Stepper, 1988). This facial feedback hypothesis is
controversial and investigations of word aversion may help
to shed light on embodied theories of emotion and language
(Barsalou, 2012; McIntosh, 1996).
An alternative possibility is that the semantic referent or
lexical neighborhood of aversive words makes these lexical
items unpleasant. The word “moist,” for instance, is
sometimes used in a sexual context; people who are not
averse to the word often speculate that it is aversive because
“it reminds people of sex and vaginas” (quotation from a
participant in Experiment 1). Prior work has found that a
word’s emotional context (valence and arousal) is at least
partially responsible for the effects of emotional words
(Talmi & Mascovitch, 2004). On this view, it may be
possible to identify a coherent category of the lexicon as
aversive. This finding would broaden our understanding of
language and contribute to a growing literature on the
processing of highly valenced and arousing words
(Anderson, 2005; Kensinger & Corkin, 2004; LaBar &
Phelps, 1998).
Experiment 1: Norming
In Experiment 1, we asked people to rate a set of 29 words
from a variety of established lexical categories (taboo,
disgust, positive, negative, etc) along six dimensions
(arousal, aversiveness1, familiarity, imagery, use, and
valence). The ratings questionnaire and many of the stimuli
come from prior work on taboo, emotionally valenced, and
emotionally neutral words (Janschewitz, 2008) (see the first
three columns of Table 1 for examples of words from some
of these lexical categories).
Since previous work had not attempted to profile aversive
words, specific target words were added to the set. Of
primary interest to us in the present study is the word
“moist,since it appears to garner the strongest feelings of
aversion among the general population. To contrast the
phonetic and sematic accounts of word aversion, we
included some words that were semantically related to
“moist” and some words that were phonologically related to
“moist” (i.e., words with an /oi/ diphthong followed by a
hard /st/) (see the two rightmost columns of Table 1 for
examples of words from these categories).
Table 1. Examples of words used for the ratings task in Experiment 1 by
category. Words from the taboo, disgust, and positive categories have been
studied previously (Janschewitz, 2008); words that are semantically related
and phonologically related to “moist” reflect a novel contribution of this
experimental study.
We had several goals in Experiment 1: to quantify the
prevalence of self-reported aversion to “moist,” to test
whether moist-averse people show a similar aversion to
words with related semantic or phonetic properties, and to
determine whether an aversive word evokes similar levels of
arousal, imagery, and valence as other known categories of
words (e.g., taboo or disgusting words).
We recruited 400 participants (227 female; mean age = 35)
from and paid them $0.50 in exchange for their
participation in the brief survey. We restricted our sample to
the United States and to Turkers who had a 90% approval
rating on prior tasks to ensure high-quality data. Of the 400
participants, 387 reported that English was their first
language. Everyone identified themselves as a highly fluent
speaker of English.
Participants rated 29 words along each of the six target
dimensions (arousal, aversiveness, familiarity, imagery, use,
and valence). The order of presentation was pseudo-random.
Three words (“murderer,” “gold,” and “shithead”) initiated
1This dimension was labeled “offensiveness” in Janschewitz (2008)’s
the survey so as to anchor participants’ ratings. The
subsequent two words came from one of four categories,
represented by the 2 (negative or positive) by 2 (related or
unrelated) table below.
Table 2. The two words that participants rated immediately before “moist”
came from one of the four categories above.
The context manipulation was designed to prime a sexual
or culinary sense of “moist”; the unrelated negative and
positive conditions served as a control to the general
manipulation of valence. The remaining 23 words were
presented in random order.
After participants completed the rating task, they
answered two specific questions about the word “moist”:
1) “Many people report that they have a particular aversion to
the word ‘moist.’ Would you characterize yourself as being
particularly averse to the word?”
2) “If you have an aversion to ‘moist,’ why do you find it
aversive? Do you know what makes you think that the
word is aversive? If you do not have an aversion to ‘moist,’
why do you think other people are averse to it?”
The first question was forced choice (yes or no) and the
second was free response. The free response question was
coded by two independent raters, who categorized whether
the explanations identified semantic and/or phonological
properties of the word as aversive. These categories were
not mutually exclusive (i.e., a person’s explanation could be
coded as semantic, phonetic, both, or neither). Finally,
participants were asked several personal and background
questions, including their age, gender, first language,
English fluency, ethnicity, religiosity, educational history,
political ideology, geographic location, and personality with
the Ten Item Personality Inventory (Gosling, Rentfrow, &
Swann, 2003).
Results and Discussion
Overall, we found that 21% of participants (n = 82) reported
an aversion to the word. There was no relationship between
contextual condition and moist-aversion, χ2[df=3, N=400] =
4.24, p = .24.
Ratings of the six target dimensions in our study were
highly correlated with ratings from Janschewitz (2008): of
the 15 words that were included in both studies, we found a
strong relationship for each dimension (average r = .93).
Notably, even our dimension of “aversiveness” was highly
correlated with Janschewitz (2008)’s dimension of
“offensiveness,” r[N=15] = .95, p < .001.
Janschewitz (2008) found that taboo and disgusting words
were associated with an especially high valence, and a
disparity between familiarity on one hand and personal use
and offensiveness on the other: people were highly familiar
with these words but did not use them and found them
offensive. Neither taboo nor disgusting words were
noteworthy for their imageability or arousal, relative to
other positive and negative words.
Like taboo and disgusting words, we found that moist-
averse people rated “moist” as highly familiar and low in
use. Relative to non-averse participants, those who reported
an aversion rated “moist” as more aversive, t[398] = 7.34, p
< .001, less familiar, t[398] = 3.38, p < .001, less used,
t[398] = 5.84, p < .001, and connoting a more negative
valence, t[398] = 6.91, p < .001. We found that the two
groups rated moistas similarly arousing t[398] = 1.20, p =
.23, and imagistic t[398] = 1.29, p = .20. Aversive words
appear to have several properties in common with taboo and
disgusting words.
Is “moist” aversive because it sounds unpleasant? People
who reported an aversion to “moist” often attributed their
unpleasant experience of the word to phonological
properties of the word (39%) (e.g., “It just has an ugly
sound that makes whatever you’re talking about sound
gross.”). People who were not averse to the word were
significantly less likely to link moist-aversion to the sound
of the word (11%), χ2[df=1, N=400] = 33.523, p < .001,
suggesting possible support for the sound symbolism
hypothesis (Nuckols, 1999). In contrast, there was no
difference in the proportion of moist-averse (65%) and non-
averse participants (59%) who cited the word’s sexual
connotation, χ2[df=1, N=400] = 0.784, p = .376.
If the sound of the word really is the cause of peoples’
aversion to “moist” then we might expect that moist-averse
people would rate words with similar phonological
properties as aversive as well. In fact, we found no such
pattern. Moist-averse participants did not rate “foist,” t[398]
= 1.43, p = .15, “hoist,” t[398] = 0.16, p = .87, or “rejoiced”
t[398] = 1.25, p = .21, as more aversive than non averse
Indeed, if we compare moist-averse participants who
specifically identified the sound of the word as aversive (n =
32) to the broader sample, we find no evidence of a relative
aversion to words with similar phonological properties:
“foist,” t[398] = 0.37, p = .71, “hoist,” t[398] = 1.37, p =
.17, or “rejoiced” t[398] = 1.28, p = .20.
One possible explanation for why people identify the
sound of the word as the cause of their aversion is because
highly arousing words are processed more automatically
(Kensinger & Corkin, 2004), are more attention-grabbing
(Anderson, 2005), and yield a greater autonomic response
(Harris, Aycicegi, & Gleason, 2003; LaBar & Phelps, 1998)
than low-arousal words. That is, the subjective experience
of the aversion may be such that a person reacts so quickly
and strongly to hearing the word that they think it is the
sound of the word itself that is aversive.
Is “moist” aversive because it has unpleasant
connotations? Instead, two sets of analyses suggest that
people find “moist” unpleasant because of negative
semantic connotations. First, across the entire sample, we
found a difference in aversiveness ratings by contextual
condition. People found “moist” especially aversive when it
followed unrelated positive words (e.g., “paradise”; M =
36.81, sd = 27.91) or sexual words (e.g., “fuck”; M = 36.19,
sd = 29.53); participants found “moist” relatively less
aversive when it followed food primes (e.g., “cake”; M =
31.52, sd = 27.66) and when it followed unrelated negative
words (e.g., “retarded”; M = 26.97, sd = 26.83), F[3, 396] =
2.67, p < .05.
There are two interesting patterns in these results. For
unrelated words, there appears to be a rebound effect.
Compared to “retarded,” “moist” may seem innocuous; in
contrast, compared to “paradise,” “moist” may seem
unpleasant. More elucidating, though, is the pattern we see
in the related word conditions. When “moist” was preceded
by sexual words, it was rated as more aversive, suggesting
that “fuck” and “pussy” primed a more negative, sexual,
interpretation of the target word. When “moist” was
preceded by culinary words, on the other hand, it was rated
less aversive, suggesting that “cake” and “delicious” primed
a different, more pleasant, sense of “moist.”
The second piece of evidence that suggests “moist” is
aversive because of its semantic features came from ratings
of semantically related words. Moist-averse participants
reported higher aversiveness ratings for “damp,” t[398] =
2.70, p < .01, “wet,” t[398] = 3.06, p < .01, and “sticky,”
t[398] = 2.67, p < .01, than non-moist-averse participants.
Importantly, it was not the case that moist-averse
participants gave higher aversiveness ratings overall (i.e.,
across all categories of words). To rule out this possibility,
we fit a mixed-effects linear model to aversiveness ratings
of two categories of words: those that were semantically
related (damp, wet, sticky) and those from the taboo
category (nigger, retarded, shithead). Lexical category
(taboo vs. moist-related) and self-reported aversion to moist
(yes vs. no) were treated as fixed effects, while participant
and word were treated as random effects. Stepwise model
comparisons revealed an interaction between the fixed
effects, χ2[df=2, N=400] = 15.641, p < .001. In general,
people rated taboo words as more aversive than synonyms
for moist, t[398] = 5.683, p < .001, but there was no
difference in the two samples’ ratings of taboo words, t[398]
= 1.71, p = .09. On the other hand, people who reported an
aversion to moist rated the synonyms as more aversive than
people who did not, t[398] = 3.92, p < .001.
These results suggest that despite peoples’ self-report of
an aversion to the sound “moist,” the semantic association
of the word underlies its aversive nature.
Are some people more likely to find “moist” aversive
than others? We found a relationship between several of
our individual difference measures and moist aversion.
However, because we measured and tested numerous
relationships (leading to potentially spurious findings), we
only report significant relationships that were replicated in
Experiment 2.
Logistic regression models identified age and neuroticism
as the most relevant individual difference measures to word
aversion. Younger participants were more likely to find
“moist” aversive, z[N=400] = 3.71, p < .001, as were more
neurotic participants, z[N=400] = 1.89, p = .05.
In sum, we are able to offer preliminary answers several
of the questions that we set out to uncover. We found that
roughly 20% of our sample reported an aversion to moist
and that their aversion is more likely the result of the word’s
semantic features than phonological properties, despite
intuitions to the contrary.
Experiment 2: Free Association
In Experiment 2, we sought to extend these findings by
using a free association task. Rather than ask people to
explicitly rate words along target dimensions, we asked
people to write the first word that came to mind upon seeing
the word “moist” (and the other stimuli from Experiment 1).
The free association task is a more implicit measure of
peoples’ conceptual and lexical representations (Nelson,
McEvoy, & Dennis, 2000) and can give further insight into
the cognitive processes that underlie word aversion. For
instance, given the results of Experiment 1, it may be the
case that moist-averse participants are more likely to
generate a sexual lexical associate to “moist” than non-
averse participants. This would provide further evidence for
the semantic relatedness hypothesis.
In addition to changing the task in Experiment 2, we
added two individual difference measures: the Brief
Loquaciousness and Interpersonal Responsiveness Test
(Swann, Rentfrow, 2001), which measures the extent to
which people respond to others quickly and effusively
(BLIRTatiousness), and the Disgust Scale (Haidt,
McCauley, & Rozin, 1993). The “blirtatiousness” scale has
been shown to capture, for instance, how physiologically
aroused a person becomes in response to unpleasant stimuli.
One possibility is that people who are moist-averse are less
loquacious and more sensitive to unpleasant properties of
words. The Disgust Scale includes items relating to seven
domains of disgust (food, animals, body products, sex, body
envelope violations, death, and hygiene). It may be the case
that people find “moist” aversive because they are
particularly sensitive to a particular elicitor of disgust like
body products or sex.
We recruited 400 participants from and paid
them $0.50 in exchange for their participation in the brief
survey. Of these, 30 had participated in Experiment 1. Data
from these participants were excluded, leaving responses
from 370 people for analyses below (205 females; mean age
= 33).
The method of Experiment 2 was very similar to that of
Experiment 1. Participants were presented with the same set
of 29 words in the same pseudo-random order (with the
contextual manipulation). However, instead of rating these
words, we asked people to respond to each by writing in the
first word that came to mind.
Following the free association task, we asked all of the
same background questions as in Experiment 1 as well as
two additioanl scales: blirtatiousness (Swann & Rentfrow,
2001) and disgust (Haidt, McCauly, Rozin, 1993).
In Experiment 2 we found that 13% (n = 49) of our
participants reported an aversion to “moist.” This represents
a significantly smaller proportion of the sample than what
we found in Experiment 1, χ2[df=1, N=770] = 6.66, p < .01.
One possible explanation for this difference is that the
ratings task itself may have caused some people to
experience “moist” aversively. That is, word aversion may
result, at least in part, from an explicit consideration of the
aversiveness dimension. There is some support for this
possibility in peoples’ free response speculation on the
origin or their aversion to “moist.” For instance, one person
wrote, “I'm not sure I did [think “moist” was aversive] until
other people pointed out that they were and then it started to
bother me as well.” This is an intriguing possibility that
warrants further study.
As in Experiment 1, we found a significant difference in
peoples’ speculation on what makes the word aversive.
Moist-averse participants were more likely to identify the
sound of the word, χ2[df=1, N=370] = 5.65, p < .05; there
was no difference in peoples’ likelihood of identifying the
semantic connotation of the word, χ2[df=1, N=370] = 1.53,
p = .22.
What words do people associate with “moist”? Two
independent coders categorized responses into five
categories food, sex, wet, yuck, and other which
emerged from reading the range of responses given by
participants. A chi-square test of independence revealed a
significant difference in the kinds of words that averse and
non-averse participants gave in response to “moist,”
χ2[df=4, N=370] = 50.20, p < .001. When the “other”
category was removed to comply with the assumptions of a
chi-square test of independence (namely, that no more than
one of the expected counts should be less than 5; Yates,
Moor, & McCabe, 1999), the results did not change, χ2
[df=3, N=357] = 50.40, p < .001. Moist-averse participants
were noteworthy for their tendency to react with a word like
“yuck” or “eww” (see Table 3).
Table 3. Percentages of lexical associates generated by people who find
“moist” aversive and people who do not.
As with Experiment 1, we included a context
manipulation such that “moist” was preceded by a pair of
unrelated negative words, unrelated positive words, food-
related words, or sexual words. In Experiment 2, we found
that the contextual manipulation affected the lexical
associate that people generated. In every condition, the
modal response was a synonym like “wet” (68%, 80%,
63%, and 51% in the negative, positive, food, and sex
conditions respectively); however, there was a significant
difference in the proportion of synonyms given by
condition, χ2[df=3,N=370] = 18.65, p < .001. Not
surprisingly, people were more likely to generate a word
related to sex in the sexual condition (18% in the sexual
context compared to 12% in the other conditions), χ2[df=3,
N=370] = 7.91, p < .05. People were more likely to generate
a word related to food in the food condition (33% in the
food context compared to 5% in the other conditions),
χ2[df=3,N=370] = 48.56, p < .001. These results conform
with the findings from Experiment 1, which suggest that
there are different senses of the word “moist” that can be
Are some people more likely to find “moist” aversive
than others? As in Experiment 1, logistic regression
models revealed that younger people are more likely to find
the word “moist” aversive, z[N=370] = 3.17, p < .001, and
that increases in neuroticism are associated with increases
word aversion, z[N=370] = 2.20, p < .05.
We found a marginal effect of blirtatiousness, z[N=370] =
1.66, p = .098: the more blirtatious the person, the less
likely they were to report an aversion. This suggests that
loquaciousness and social sensitivity may play a role in
word aversion.
With regard to disgust, we did not find an effect when we
used scores from the entire scale as a predictor, z[N=370] =
0.39, p = .70. However, using a subcomponent of the scale,
we found that the more disgust people associate with bodily
functions, the more likely they were to report an aversion to
moist, z[N=370] = 3.16, p < .01. Interestingly, there was no
relationship between word aversion and the sexual
component of the disgust scale, z[N=370] = 0.84, p = .40. It
may not be the sexual connotation of these words that make
them aversive but a more general association to effluvia
(Pinker, 2007).
Experiment 3: Lexical Decision Task
In Experiment 3, we brought participants into the lab for a
lexical decision task in order to further investigate the nature
of word aversion. Like the free response task, lexical
decision tasks represent a more implicit measure of
cognitive representations and processes (Seidenberg &
McClelland, 1989). Since affect is known to modulate
attention (Anderson, 2005; Easterbrook, 1959), we
hypothesized that moist-averse participants might respond
faster to “moist” than others. In addition, as in Experiments
1 and 2, we included a contextual manipulation to test
whether people might show a sensitivity to the primed sense
of the word possibly showing faster RTs in the sexual
word condition.2
We recruited 41 students from Oberlin College to
participate in the lexical decision task. They were granted
course credit in exchange for their contribution.
2 It should be noted that these data are preliminary and Experiment 3 is
Experiment 3, like Experiments 1 and 2, was designed to
include words from a variety of categories (disgust, taboo)
as well as specific target words relating to moist (i.e., words
that were phonologically related to “moist” as well as words
that were semantically related). Strings of letters were
presented serially to participants in blocks of 80 items. In
every block 50% of the stimuli were standard English words
while the other 50% were non-words (generated by
changing a letter or scrambling a set of letters from a
matched word).
The first block was treated as a familiarization phase as
were the first 20 trials of subsequent blocks. Data from
these trials were omitted from analysis.
The word “moist” was always presented in the second
block and was preceded by two words from one of four
categories (see Table 2).
Following the lexical decision task, participants were
asked if they are averse to the word “moist.”
Overall, 14% (n = 5)3 of our sample reported an aversion to
“moist.” Because of the small sample size we were not able
to compare reaction times to “moist” across the sample
populations. However, we were able to test the effect of the
context manipulation. We found an overall difference
between negative and positive conditions, t[39] = 2.06, p <
.05, when we collapsed across the dimension of relevance.
That is, people responded to “moist” faster when it followed
a negative word than when it followed a positive word,
regardless of whether the negative or positive word primed a
specific sense of “moist.” This suggests a general effect of
highly arousing negatively valenced words on attention that
is consistent with prior work (e.g., Anderson, 2005).
Because we used stimuli from Janschewitz (2008), we
were able to use ratings data from seven target dimensions
(i.e., use, familiarity, offensiveness, tabooness, valence,
arousal, and imageability) to predict response times.
Stepwise model comparisons revealed that the best model
included three predictors: arousal, offensiveness, and the
number of letters in a word (see Table 4). The more letters
in a word, the longer it took participants to identify it as a
word; the more arousing a word, the faster people were to
respond to it; and the more offensive a word, the slower
people were to respond to it. This suggests that people
might be taken aback by seeing a highly offensive word on
the screen, which may delay their response.
< .001
< .001
< .001
< .001
Table 4. Results of a general linear model with Response Time as the
dependent variable.
3 Data on the aversivness of “moist” for five of the 41 participants were not
These results suggest that to the extent that “moist” is
truly offensive to someone with an aversion to the word,
they may actually respond more slowly than people without
an aversion to moist. However, further work is warranted to
answer this question definitively.
General Discussion
The results of three experiments represent a novel
exploratory effort to better understand the cognitive
underpinnings of word aversion. Our results suggest that as
many as 20% of the population may be averse to “moist”
and that such an aversion is related to age, neuroticism, and
a particular kind of disgust: to bodily functions (and not
phonological features of the word).
This work reveals that averse words may be similar to
well-studied lexical categories like taboo and disgusting
words. Our findings contribute to a growing literature on the
processing of highly valenced and arousing words.
Future work will continue to explore the cause of word
aversion using implicit measures like the lexical decision
task and EEG. It will also seek to test the hypothesis that
explicit consideration of the aversiveness of a word can
cause word aversion (i.e., will seek to induce word aversion
in a laboratory setting).
The authors would like to thank Kevin McIntyre and Kelly
McCormick for inspiration and helpful, critical discussion
of the content of this paper and the issues it addresses.
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