People really, really don't like the word moist.
In 2012, when The New Yorker asked its readers which word they'd purge from the English language if given the chance, they responded with moist, "a runaway favorite," handily beating words like "literally" and "irregardless."
That same year, a Buzzfeed story titled "Why Moist Is The Worst Word Ever," racked up more than four million views. Other sites featured flowcharts designating when it's acceptable and when it's "gross and upsetting" to deploy the word. On the sitcom "How I Met Your Mother," Neil Patrick Harris' character gets revenge on Alyson Hannigan's Lily by staging a one-man show consisting of no other dialog than the word moist, and director Joss Whedon even turned the word into the name of a villain in a musical he penned.
So why is moist so unsettling for so many people?
In "A Moist Crevice for Word Aversion: In Semantics Not Sounds," researchers from Ohio's Oberlin College and Texas' Trinity University sought to explain why "as many as 20 [percent] of the population equates hearing the word ’moist’ to the sound of fingernails scratching a chalkboard."
First, they dispelled a common misconception: despite what many people believe, the sound of the word apparently isn't a contributing factor in people's aversion. Even the researchers admitting they'd gone into the study thinking "that words like ’moist’ are aversive because speaking them engages facial muscles that correspond to expressions of disgust," according to MTV.
Most people who participated in the study thought the phonetics and auditory qualities of the word were to blame as well.
“It just has an ugly sound that makes whatever you’re talking about sound gross,” one study participant told the researchers, according to the resulting academic paper.
Close cousins of the M-word, including foist and hoist, don't cause people to recoil or cringe.
So if the sounds, facial muscles and mouth movements associated with moist aren't to blame for its unparalleled ability to gross people out, what gives the word its ghastly quality?
Context, the Oberlin and Trinity researchers found. The word moist is most upsetting to a certain subset of people and when used in conjunction with a certain subset of words. For example, comparatively few people were off-put by the use of moist in sentences describing cake, where moistness is a positive quality.
But place the word moist into a sentence about sex or bodily functions, and suddenly revulsion kicks in.
"Our results suggest that as many as 20 percent of the population may be averse to 'moist,'" the researchers wrote, "and that such an aversion is related to age, neuroticism, and a particular kind of disgust to bodily functions."
Sources: An Exploratory Investigation Of Word Aversion/Oberlin College, Trinity University, MTV, The Oatmeal / Photo credit: Foodess