The Science Behind Why People Hate the Word ‘Moist’

Does the word ‘moist’ make your skin crawl? Researchers looked into why—and found that it’s not just because of the way it sounds.
People really, really hate the word 'moist'—and researchers may have figured out why.
People really, really hate the word 'moist'—and researchers may have figured out why. / GoodGnom/DigitalVision Vectors (water droplets), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (speech bubble)

People really do not like discussing moisture. A Buzzfeed post called “Why Moist Is The Worst Word Ever” received more than 4 million views; when The New Yorker asked readers to nominate a word to scrub from the English language in 2012, the overwhelming consensus was to ditch moist. The seemingly ordinary adjective inspires an excessive outpouring of ire. Why?

A group of psychologists decided to find out. Researchers from Oberlin College in Ohio and Trinity University in San Antonio ran three different experiments [PDF] to figure out how many people really find the word moist disdainful, and why. They found that around 20 percent of the population studied was averse to the word, but that it didn’t have anything to do with the way it sounds. Rather, it’s the association with bodily functions that seem to turn most people off, whether they realize it or not.

Most of the participants who told the researchers they hated the word chalked it up to phonics. “It just has an ugly sound that makes whatever you’re talking about sound gross,” one participant argued. However, people did not show similar aversions to words that utilize the same sounds, such as foist or rejoiced. People found the word moist most disgusting when it was accompanied by unrelated, positive words like paradise, or when it was accompanied by sexual words. By contrast, when it accompanied food words (like cake), people weren’t as bothered by it.

The younger and more neurotic the study participants were, the more likely they were to dislike the word. Additionally, the more disgust they associated with bodily functions, the less they liked moist. The researchers postulated that people who found themselves particularly grossed out by thinking of things as moist may just be more likely to associate the word with sex. As one participant explained, “It reminds people of sex and vaginas.” No disrespect to either, of course, but we're pretty sure no one wants to think about those things when they're browsing the baked goods aisle.

A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2023.

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