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The Most Hated Words in English

Is there a word that prickles your skin, raises the short hairs on the back of your neck, or just in general makes you feel sick? Did you even know about this phenomenon? That a simple word with no political or hateful connotations can make normal person uncomfortable. Well, it’s a thing, and it seems as though there are terrible words out there that are making more and more people’s faces pucker as if they had just sucked a lemon. What are some of those words you ask and why might it make people squirm? That’s where we come in. Get the down low on these terms and, maybe, do your best to avoid them in public. Just saying.

Photo via Wikimedia

The internet black hole

So, when answering a question, what’s the first thing you should do? That’s right, dive straight into a rampant Google search and immerse yourself in all kinds of memes, GIFs, ridiculous BuzzFeed articles, and last but not least, Wikipedia to get all your source material.And what was the first thing that all this digging led to? You guessed it: moist.

Alright, this one can’t be anything new for you netizens out there. Go one step further in your search and you’ll find endless threads of like-minded individuals discussing their revulsion of this word.

Moving on from that ever-so-disgusting word, we found a long list of words that make people out there recoil and seek their comfort corner.

But why?

In a short study from Oberlin College analyzing moist found that it’s not actually the sound of the adjective that gives some the creeping spine shudders but it’s association with bodily functions that skeeves people out, whether they realize it or not. Most participants in the study say that the problem is strictly a phonetic one, that it’s just an ugly sounding word. However when exposed to like-sounding words like foist or rejoiced there’s not the same, or any, aversion whatsoever. Similarly when the word is associated with food, moist cake, the aversion is less than when paired with an unrelated yet positive word, moist paradise.

The Oberlin study seems to show that the negative effect of moist is completely about associative imagery, but what about all the other words that show up on these most-hated word lists? Many of them are also related to bodily functions or disease such as: discharge, viscous, riddled and fester. These are all on the list and are all words very likely to be heard in a doctor’s office or emergency room. What is a little more inexplicable though are words like gusset, fecund, belly and cluster. Hmm.

The trial

I decided to run some of these others by my office assistant and see what reaction she might have to these seemingly innocuous words. I did a little more compiling and came up with ten words that have no obvious connection to disease, death, violence, sex, or any bodily function. We sat at the table in our break room, a nice, safe place and read through it. The outcome was that four of the ten words did indeed make her uncomfortable. Strangely, gusset was the worst of the words for her and she didn’t even know what it meant (FYI: a kind of seam where an extra piece of material is added for strength).

She went on to tell me some of the other words she can’t stand: facile, global and luggage.

Well… that’s just extra information, though. Maybe in he case, the aversion is phonetic and not associative, or perhaps a psychological event affected her perception. She says that it is the combination of sounds contained in a single word that raises the disgust factor. She sounded them out for me, the long /oi/ and hard /t/ of moist. The transition of the hard to soft /g/ in luggage. Maybe it’s the fact that she is not a native English speaker.

Photo via Flickr

Whatever our nameless assistant’s reasoning, these words are definitely food for thought. Is it possible that there have been other ‘ disgusting’ words in history? Perhaps this is a great sign of literacy? Maybe incredibly unfortunate word association? It could even be the result of having all knowledge at the tip of a finger at all times. Does it reflect a level of sensitivity finally gained after generations of repression and ignorance to our human condition? 

Unfortunately one question can lead to even more questions and far fewer answers, but have a think about it and let us know. Is there a word that can turn your stomach and if so do you know why?