Did you know these are the most hated English words?

Some feature regularly in lists of people’s least favourite words in English: “vomit” is a perennial peeve, but some dislikes are more irrational

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Fri 17 Mar 2023, 12:42 AM

As an omnivorous consumer of words, whether good, bad, or ugly, I tend not to discriminate among them, embracing them all as grist to the mill of my somewhat eclectic vocabulary. So it came as a surprise to me to discover that, when it comes to words in the English language, there are several that people actually dislike so much that they win contests for “the most hated words”.

Some feature regularly in lists of people’s least favourite words in English: “vomit” is a perennial peeve, but some dislikes are more irrational, like people’s visceral dislike of “gushing” or “renal”. One can understand “vomit”, because of the images and feelings the word conjures because of its meaning. There’s similar hate for “pus” and “phlegm”, and all of us can empathise with those who can’t stand the word because of the thoughts they inspire. But the word that regularly tops the charts for the most hated word in the English language, surprisingly, is “moist”.

Why “moist”, one may well ask? It’s not a disgusting word like the others; it has associations with soft, sentimental tears (“she looked at her departing son with moist eyes”), with descriptions of weather (“the moist air of this humid clime”) and of a gentle state between dryness and wetness that suggests neither extreme. And yet “moist” has become a much-hated word. There’s an entire article you can google from the Los Angeles Times, by June Casagrande – the author, apparently, of a book called The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know – on why people dislike “moist”.

According to her, the use of the word “has been in steady decline for over a century but took a big dip around 2010”. Around the middle of the first decade of the century, Says Ms Casagrande, “countless thousands of people decided they hate the word ‘moist’. Some had probably hated it all along. Others were clearly jumping on a bandwagon….” The result is that writers are actively trying to avid using the word. “It’s unclear whether writers are avoiding the word “moist” because they dislike it or because they know readers do, but either way there’s a lesson here: When writing, choose your words carefully”.

I am clearly out of sync with the global mood, because I like the word, but I have since discovered, to my chagrin, that when the prestigious New Yorker magazine conducted a survey in 2012 on “the most disliked words”, poor old “moist” had topped the list. Apparently, researchers at two American colleges, Oberlin and Trinity, even conducted a study on why people hated this inoffensive word and found that people who didn’t like the word ‘moist’ also didn’t like words such as ‘phlegm,’ ‘vomit,’ and ‘diarrhoea’ — “suggesting that a big part of why people hate the word so much is its connotations to bodily fluids”. This was confirmed by another survey conducted by the online language platform Preply, which concluded that the majority of the words that make people squirm are related to the human body (including “foetus” and “mucus”) and bodily fluids. But the dislike also extends beyond the words already mentioned in this column, to more innocent terms like “seepage”, “ooze”, “putrid”, “yeast” and – bizarrely for Indian yoghurt-lovers --“curd”. These all seem to incite feelings of queasiness in those who dislike or reject them.

There is, inevitably, a word in English for this kind of dislike for certain words: the feeling of aversion for specific words or terms is called “logomisia”. A linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Mark Liberman defines logomisia as “a feeling of intense, irrational distaste for the sound or sight of a particular word or phrase, not because its use is regarded as etymologically or logically or grammatically wrong, nor because it’s felt to be over-used or redundant or trendy or non-standard, but simply because the word itself somehow feels unpleasant or even disgusting.”

The professor adds: “This demonstrates just how powerful language can be. Language has the ability to make us feel all types of positive emotions, including love and happiness. However … language also has the power to make us uncomfortable.” A moist wipe, anyone?


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