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The science of word aversion: Why 'moist' makes you shudder

Why do some words give people the heebie-jeebies? A new study looks at words commonly perceived as disgusting, using the widely reviled "moist" as a test case.

Many still hate the word "moist," despite cake-mix-makers' best efforts.

Gael Cooper/CNET

Oh, lil' Pillsbury Doughboy. You tried. You tried to make "moist" an acceptable word, redolent of mouthwatering chocolate cakes and melty brownies.

You failed. Article after article has noted that the word "moist," as in Pillsbury's Moist Supreme cake mix line, and rival General Mills' SuperMoist offerings, just plain grosses many people out.

A study published in the scientific journal PLOS One resurrects the "moist" controversy with the disgusting headline: "A Moist Crevice for Word Aversion." Oberlin College psychology professor Paul Thibodeau decided to use "moist" as a case study for the phenomenon known as word aversion, and says his five experiments show 10 to 20 percent of the population strongly dislikes the term.

"Data from the current studies point to semantic features of the word -- namely, associations with disgusting bodily functions -- as a more prominent source of peoples' unpleasant experience," Thibodeau writes.

Word aversion still isn't fully understood, and we may never be able to scientifically pin down all the issues the poor word "moist" has. The peer-reviewed study, published April 27, points out that the words "damp," "wet" and "sticky" have similar meanings, but adds that "to our knowledge there are not Facebook pages, feature articles in newspapers, or plotlines of popular TV shows devoted to exposing the aversive nature of these words -- as there are for 'moist.'"

The word repulses people so much even celebrity power couldn't save it. People hated it even more after watching what Thibodeau called a "cringe-inducing" People magazine video in which actors including "Walking Dead" star Norman Reedus were asked to make the word sound "hot." One viewer described the video as "pure sadism."

There is some good news for the Doughboy, though. Study participants who watched a video where "moist" was used in conjunction with cake did find the word less offensive. So while the names of those boxed mixes still creep out many people, there may be hope that the cake lobby can eventually reclaim its moist little friend. Thibodeau focused his tests on "moist," but notes in the introduction to the study that many people also find the words "crevice," "slacks" and "luggage" disturbing.

Now, "crevice," we can see, for all the bodily function associations that haunt "moist." But "slacks"? "Luggage"? We're going to say those who object to that one might be carrying a little of their own baggage.

(Via The New York Times)