For those of you who aren’t aware, moist is one of the most hated words in the English language. I personally have no problem with it, but as Jim Davies of Nautilus points out, a lot of people do (women in particular).
Several Facebook groups are dedicated to it, one with over 3,000 likes, New Yorker readers overwhelmingly selected it as the word to eliminate from the dictionary, and Jimmy Fallon sarcastically thanked it for being the worst word in the English language. When you ask people why this might be, there is no shortage of armchair theory: that there’s something about the sounds involved, that it puts your face in a position similar to the facial expression of disgust, or that it reminds people of mold or sex.
So psychologist Paul Thibodeau and his colleagues set out to discover why. What were the results?
Twenty-one percent of the people in the study had an aversion to the unloved word. It turns out that the sounds don’t have much to do with that effect. Similar-sounding words, such as “foist,” did not generate the same reaction. Because those words also put your facial muscles in similar positions, we can also discount the disgust-facial expression theory.
So what about the meaning? Well, people found “moist” most aversive when it follows an unrelated, pleasant word, such as “paradise.” There seems to be a contrast effect going on here. “Moist” seems bad when following “paradise” but not when following a really negative word, like a racial slur. “Moist” also didn’t seem so unpleasant when it followed words related to food, such as “cake.” In contrast, it provoked the most negative reactions when preceded by overtly sexual words (use your imagination). These results show that reminding people of certain meanings of “moist” can affect one’s disgust reaction to it.
So there you have it. A scientist yelled racial slurs at people in order to discover why they don’t like the word moist. And it turns out people don’t like the word because it reminds them of sex-related dampness.