When the Oxford Dictionary launched a global search for the most disliked word in the English language in 2016, the publisher was forced to shut down its survey within mere days — all because, you guessed it, users immediately flooded the data set with a mix of swear words and other offensive language.
That said, after filtering out all of the internet trolling, it became clear that “moist” was a top contender. This wasn’t the first time “moist” was publicly dampened either. People named it the most “cringeworthy” word in 2016 and New Yorker readers voted it a “runaway un-favorite” in 2012. Moreover, psychologist Paul Thibodeau suspects that the overwhelming disdain dates back much further. “It’s hard for me to say how long the aversion has been around,” he tells me, noting that the earliest pop-culture reference he’s seen was in a 2003 episode of the show Dead Like Me.
Thibodeau first started to wonder why people hated “moist” so much after he started asking his students at Oberlin College about it several years ago. “A lot of them found the word really gross,” the associate professor of psychology recalls. So as an assignment for his research methods class, he worked with his students to design several experiments to get to the bottom of it. “For example, do people hate the word because of how it sounds or because of what it means?”
The class project eventually inspired Thibodeau to conduct a five-part study that included more than 2,000 people, and the results indicated that up to 20 percent of people have an aversion to the word. Many of the participants reported that the word reminded them of bodily functions, including, as one reported, “sex and vaginas.”
But overall, Thibodeau found that the aversion seemed to be even more often linked with non-sexual bodily functions like puke and diarrhea. He also noticed that individuals who hated the word moist were more likely to be younger women who are highly educated and “somewhat neurotic.” Based on this, Thibodeau believes that moist hatred likely has more to do with belonging to a group than actual disgust. “The group, in this context, refers to young, smart females who care what other people think about them,” he explains.
Interestingly, his series of experiments also found that many people made an exception for “moist” when it came to describing food, particularly baked goods. As @looks_last pointed out on Twitter, that’s probably because other synonyms like “damp” simply don’t suffice.
And if “moist” isn’t for you even when it comes to freshly baked cookies, at least we still have one over the Germans, who are forever stuck with feucht.