Why is everyone so disgusted by the word ‘moist’? A psychologist explains

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This week ‘moist’ officially became the least popular word in the UK. It is followed by ‘no’, ‘Brexit’ and ‘British’ (a very British thing in itself, if I may utter this word). But why is it that we, as a nation, are so averse to this harmless five letter word? For many years now, people have been taking a dislike to the word ‘moist’. It’s become almost fashionable to hate the word; people don’t dare say it public, for fear of embarrassment. My housemate used to have a “penny in the moist jar” system as a punishment, and it seemed totally reasonable.

With Great British Bake Off back on our screens, we’ve started hearing it a lot, especially as the first challenge was to create a drizzle cake, the moistest of all baked goods.

This created an uproar on Twitter. People are not happy with the apparent overuse of the word ‘moist’ and are pleading for it to stop.

Meanwhile others were revelling in the popular dislike of the word…

I spoke to psychologist Richard Stephens about this bizarre trend:

“One idea is that people are averse to the word ‘moist’ because of how it sounds. If true then people should also be averse to similar sounding words like ‘hoist’ and ‘foist’, but they weren’t. This isn’t too much of a surprise given that the sounds that make up a language tend to be random, apart from a smattering of onomatopoeic words (words that convey sounds) like ‘splash’.

“Another clue comes from the observation that ‘moist’ can be very good in some contexts, such as when it describes the texture of the slice of cake we’ve just been served, but can be very bad in others, for example when it refers to the condition of the armpit of the person crammed next to us on the London tube. So, perhaps the word ‘moist’ is seen as aversive because there is conflict in many people’s minds between these simultaneous strong positive and negative connotations.

“Yet another possibility is that ‘moist’ is aversive because it brings to mind unsavoury associations, such as sexual words or words connected with non-sexual bodily functions. This is actually the most promising explanation because people who were averse to the word ‘moist’ also tended to be averse to bodily function words like ‘phlegm’ or ‘puke’. But note, these same people were not usually averse to sexual words like ‘horny’ or ‘pussy’ suggesting that their aversion to the word ‘moist’ was driven not by sexual prudishness but a dislike of more mundane bodily functions.

“It all came down to semantics – it was the meaning of the word and its associations with other words that underlay the negative evaluation. That aversion to the word ‘moist’ was correlated with aversion to certain revolting bodily functions, like coughing up phlegm and vomiting, suggests that we are most likely to be averse to words that are linked to unsavoury associations.”

So, there you have it.

You can read more of Richard’s work in his critically acclaimed popular science book, Black Sheep The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad.