Does the word "moist" make you shudder? Researchers estimate that 20 percent of the population seriously hates the term. Facebook pages are dedicated to its awfulness. And it generally gives folks the heebie jeebies.
Yes, if you were at a birthday party and said, Mmm, this cake is sooo moist, you'd likely be met with looks of disgust and promptly asked to leave. But why—what is it about "moist" that elicits such feelings of hatred?
That's exactly what researchers from Oberlin and Trinity College wanted to find out. (Yes, actual researchers conducted an actual study on it.) The team ran three experiments concerning the word to determine whether it was the sound, the meaning, or the context that turned people off.
Perhaps not shockingly, the repulsion appeared to stem from people connecting "moist" with vaginas. We'll explain.
The researchers recruited 400 participants. All were asked to rate 29 different words in terms of arousal, aversiveness, familiarity, imagery, use, and valence. The words were presented in a pseudo-random order. First, the words “murderer,” “gold,” and “shithead” appeared. Next, the researchers chose two words from one of four categories (chart below) which were either negative or positive—and related or unrelated—to the word "moist."
The remaining 23 words were then presented randomly. These words included "foist," "hoist," and "rejoiced," to determine if the sound itself caused the aversion. After, participants were asked two questions:
1. Many people report that they have a particular aversion to the word "moist." Would you characterize yourself as being particularly averse to the word?
2. If you have an aversion to "moist," why do you find it aversive? Do you know what makes you think that the word is aversive? If you do not have an aversion to "moist," why do you think other people are averse to it?
Twenty percent of respondents reported having an aversion to the word. From the open-ended question, it was determined that roughly 40 percent said they hated the word because of how it sounds. As one participant said: "It just has an ugly sound that makes whatever you’re talking about sound gross."
And yet, those same people did not find the words "hoist" or "rejoiced" disturbing.
This led the researchers to believe people may not even understand why they hate the word, despite their self-report. "If the sound of the word really is the cause of peoples’ aversion to 'moist' then we might expect that moist-averse people would rate words with similar phonological properties as aversive as well. In fact, we found no such pattern," they write.
Instead, based on the experiment's results, the researchers believe that connotation plays a larger role. "The semantic association of the word underlies its aversive nature," they write.
Why? The researchers note that, across the board, people hated the word more when it was preceded by an unrelated, pleasant word such as "paradise" or a sexual word like "fuck"—and less when preceded by food-related words.
"When 'moist' was preceded by sexual words, it was rated as more aversive, suggesting that 'fuck' and 'pussy' primed a more negative, sexual interpretation of the target word," the researchers write in the study.
Notably, people who disliked the word "moist" also were more averse to the words "damp," "wet," and "sticky"—suggesting, again, that semantic association plays a bigger role than the phonetic sound of the word.
To build upon the findings of the first experiment, the researchers recruited another 400 people, and this time, asked them the first word that came to mind upon hearing the word "moist,"
From the results the researchers came up with five categories associated with "moist": food, sex, wet, yuck, and other. They also included a context primer in which the word "moist" was preceded by a pair of unrelated negative words, unrelated positive words, food-related words, or sexual words.
"Not surprisingly, people were more likely to generate a word related to sex in the sexual condition. People were more likely to generate a word related to food in the food condition," the researchers write.
"These results conform with the findings from Experiment 1, which suggest that there are different senses of the word 'moist' that can be primed." Again, relating people's aversion to context.
This time the researchers used 41 students from Oberlin College. In the lab they presented the participants with strings of letters in blocks of 80 items. Half the blocks made English words, and the other half created non-sensical words. "Moist" was always presented in the second block. The researchers hypothesized that people who hate the word "moist" would react faster upon seeing the word than people who did not.
According to the study, they found that "People responded to 'moist' faster when it followed a negative word than when it followed a positive word, regardless of whether the negative or positive word primed a specific sense of 'moist.'"
Through other measures, in each experiment, researchers found that people who were younger and more neurotic were more likely to dislike the word "moist." They also found that people who have an aversion to the word tend to dislike it because of its connotation. They explain that "Such an aversion is related to a particular kind of disgust to bodily functions (and not phonological features of the word)."
For example, as one participant wrote, "It reminds people of sex and vaginas.” 👀
I'm not sure which is worse: That the idea of sex and vaginas combined may lead 20 percent of the population to feel sheer disgust, or that there's really no other way to describe a perfectly moist cake without saying the word "moist." Sometimes life is just cruel.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.