Let’s talk about chocolate cake. People can say it’s “sweet,” “rich,” “dense,” “frosted” and sometimes “fudgy” — almost “chunky” if the chocolate happens to be doubled. Chocolate cake can also be “creamy” and at times “dry,” but a good slice of double chocolate will be “slightly wet” and “damp” … maybe “moist”?
It’s an apt descriptor for cake, but I spent the last few minutes searching for synonyms for “slightly wet” and “damp,” in a wasted effort to avoid the icky cringe that comes with saying “moist.”
Why do we play the conversational equivalent of Taboo when it comes to saying the word “moist”?
Turns out, there’s a name for it. Just as a manager can be risk-averse, or a picky eater can be averse to certain senses, a person can live with “word aversion.”
A cognitive psychologist at Oberlin College, Dr. Paul Thibodeau, conducted a series of experiments to determine why so many people hate the word “moist.” He found that 18 percent of the 2,500 people he surveyed were averse to the word “moist.” No surprises there.
Thibodeau narrowed his hypothesis to three possible reasons: the way it sounds, its connotations to bodily fluids, and the socialized belief that the word is disgusting. Study participants were not disgusted by similar-sounding words like “foist” or “rejoiced,” disproving the first hypothesis.
Participants who didn’t like the word “moist” also responded negatively to words such as “phlegm,” “vomit” and “diarrhea,” suggesting the connotations to bodily fluids plays a part in the word aversion.
Participants watched two videos — a video of People Magazine’s Sexiest Men Alive showing clips of attractive men saying the word “moist” in awkward contexts and a video about moist, delicious cake.
Thibodeau’s study concluded that our collective aversion to “moist” is linked to our associations with bodily fluids and the social associations with the word itself, which makes evolutionary sense. He explained that disgust is adaptive; had we not developed the wherewithal to book it in the opposite direction when a person projectile vomited, disease would spread more easily.
The cultural component to our disgust with “moist” can be pointed at each other. How a word becomes tainted or “contaminated” will depend on how it’s used in context and in association with how we use it with one another.