Moist. Probe. Crevice: Why do we hate certain words?

Warning: this article contains a word that you might find offensive. In fact, some readers might find it so deeply unsettling that they might begin to wonder about the cause of their aversion. What is it about this word that generates such a visceral experience of revulsion and discomfort? Is it something about the particular combination of sounds it forces us to utter? Maybe something about the conceptual associations that it evokes? What proportion of the population also feels this way? Is this only true of certain kinds of people and not others?

The word in question here is “moist,” and apparently 20 percent of the population equate hearing it spoken with fingernails on a chalkboard. An aversion to the word has become somewhat of a cultural phenomenon, with celebrities decrying it as an abomination of the English language, and outlets from New Yorker to People exploring its uniquely disturbing properties.

Though on its face the thought of devoting a program of research to discovering why people hold such an aversion seems like the kind of topic likely to appear in the next round of arguments trying to defund social science research, there are interesting questions to be answered here that shed light on basic psychological processes. New research from Paul Thibodeau at Oberlin College has attempted to understand these processes and his initial work has suggested that the cause of the aversion may not be what most people think.

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