What is it with some words?

OK, this word: ‘moist’. I am told by one correspondent, who has a particular aversion, that ‘moist’ feels unpleasant in his mouth. (It’s a clever joke but, alas, I don’t think he was joking.) ‘Moist’ sits midway on a spectrum, from parched to salivating, or, to distort a lyric, ‘from desert to flood’[1]. Moist, therefore, is a state of perfection in the natural condition.

A five-minute wonder of social media interest in ‘moist’ was raised, in 2013, when online magazine People published a short video entitled These Sexy Men Make the Worst Word Sound Hot! [2] in which the likes of actor Christian Slater and musician Ed Sheeran speak the word ‘moist’ direct to camera. A somewhat drier consideration was published online in April 2016: a report entitled A Moist Crevice for Word Aversion: In Semantics Not Sounds, prepared by Paul H. Thibodeau, a cognitive scientist at Oberlin University, Ohio, US. This investigation showed that 18% of users of American English have a ‘categorical aversion’ to ‘moist’. Cue another Facebook flurry by the anti-moist … ‘ugh! Hate the word!’.

Apparently, it is not just speakers of American English who are prone to this nonsense. My evidence of that is empirical – and, given the nature of my correspondents, utterly random.

Thibodeau’s experiments (spoiler alert!) were inconclusive. He found that the majority of those interviewed who were averse to ‘moist’ declared that they simply didn’t like the sound of the word. Whilst those respondents who were not averse presumed that for those who were it was the sexual connotations of ‘moist’ that occasioned such antipathy. It is easy to sympathise with the latter opinion, happily presuming an undeclared puritanism in the former. This, however, is disproved by the first group’s responses to a variety of taboo words and terms associated with bodily (not exclusively sexual) functions.

In July 2016 BuzzFeed [3] offered an online survey to discover which words ‘make you want to be sick in your mouth a bit’. You may find the words that follow are are little upsetting. They are BuzzFeed’s options in the order they were presented.

  • Moist
  • Ointment
  • Sputum
  • Fart
  • Ooze
  • Cyst
  • Pus
  • Mucus
  • Pussy
  • Phlegm
  • Discharge
  • Scrotum
  • Panties
  • Curd
  • Smear
  • Squirt
  • Maggots
  • Orifice
  • Secrete
  • Fungus
  • Scum
  • Pube
  • Congealed
  • Groin
  • Smegma
  • Squelch
  • Seepage
  • Flap
  • Clump
  • Spunk
  • Nipple
  • Pimple
  • Crusty
  • Suckle
  • Eggy
  • Testes
  • Creamy
  • Supple
  • Plop
  • Crotch
  • Leech
  • Flaccid
  • Bosom
  • Putrid
  • Fetid
  • Squat
  • Faeces
  • Shrivelled
  • Globule
  • Snog
  • Bunion
  • Yeast
  • Defecation
  • Coagulate
  • Flatulence
  • Shaft
  • Dollop
  • Festering
  • Flesh
  • Rectum
  • Juices
  • Curdle
  • Grundle

Do you feel sick in your mouth? A bit?

Most of that list, it seems to me, is only concerned with the particular meanings of words. But, in the wider world, is that really true of ‘moist’? It is interesting that the first word that the BuzzFeed journalist/s came up with when compiling the list is ‘moist’. Why? And does it tell us more about BuzzFeed than the vocabulary of our times?

Are you dry, moist or wet?

Alcohol is not illegal in Boyd County, Kentucky. It is not a dry county. It is a moist county. Yep, Boyd County is happily moist. In August 2016 there was a referendum: a vote that concerned the expansion of alcohol sales. Should Boyd stay moist or get wet? The question put was Are you in favor of alcoholic beverages in Boyd County? It’s a binary Yes/No question because, by law, there is no middle ground between ‘moist’ and ‘wet’[4]. In the event Boyd County stayed ‘moist’, the outcome decided by 58% of the 17% of voters who bothered.

(I live in the UK. We are in no position to criticize other people’s referenda. But at least we can pop to the shop for a moistener when we fancy, as easy as getting a gun in Kentucky.)

So, moist. Couple of things: (i) What’s going on with moist? (ii) Does it matter?

(i) The cake is nice and moist; behind a warm front the air is moist; her lips are moist; her eyes moistened; she moisturised this morning; she used a moisturiser; the ground is moist; ‘the going is moist to tricky’[5]; moisture; moistener; mostly moistly… That’s what’s going on with ‘moist’. It’s a perfectly good and useful word. But it’s not every word that gets such a negative response. Not ‘war’. Not ‘cancer’. Not ‘gun’. But ‘moist’… Mmmmm. Moist. Roll it round your tongue. Such a lubricious word.

(ii) Hell, yes it matters. Look around you: lack of honest communication is behind most of the problems (whatever your perspective). And these petty annoyances and major tribulations are always aggravated by some form of censorship, propaganda or spin. Censorship is given grounds for growth when some people ‘dislike’ or ‘hate’ a word (for whatever reasons) and force their intolerance on the rest of society. Self-censorship, political-censorship, official censorship are the true ‘enemies of the people’. ‘Oh, I don’t want to say ‘moist’ in case it causes offence…’ I know it’s a trivial example – but it is symptomatic. The fear of giving offence stifles us. Or gives us grounds to stifle others.

A word is not to blame. A word on its own is not ‘fake news’ or ‘alternative fact’. It’s the ill-users, the word-twisters and haters that I have a problem with. The ones who wish to restrict communication to subjects they approve of. To bully rather than persuade. To ban rather than engage. To complain in the hope of a free sample.

So embrace your vocabulary, sweat it, stimulate it, lubricate it, get moist, be moist, enjoy moist, make the most of moist. In a very real sense the future depends on MOIST. And every other word you can think of.

If you are one of the 18% who can’t handle ‘moist’ get over it. Thibodeau’s introduction commences: ‘many people report that they find words like “moist,” “crevice,” “slacks,” and “luggage” acutely aversive’. That’s the company that you ‘moist’-deniers keep. ‘Oh, I don’t want to say ‘luggage’ in case it causes offence…’

That’s why ‘moist’ matters.

[1] ‘I’ve tried levels of moisture/from desert to mud’, Little Shop of Horrors: Grow for Me, lyrics: Howard Ashman. 1982

[2] https://youtu.be/HrLE4RJuUgg

[3] https://www.buzzfeed.com/genamourbarrett/how-word-sensitive-are-you?utm_term=.rmekwZA7v#.vfaV5AKgM

[4] The Daily Independent (Kentucky), 1st August 2016

[5] Alan Partridge (portrayed by Steve Coogan), The Day Today, 26th January 1994