August 20, 2007

Ask Language Log: The moist panties phenomenon

Greg Sabin wrote:

I'm writing to ask you about a certain word association quirk that seems to affect my wife and a few other women that I know. The issue centers around the word "moist." Both my wife and a close friend (also female) cannot stand the word, either written or spoken. (As you can imagine, this makes watching cooking shows rather difficult.) They are totally fine with "moisturizer," but cringe and shudder at "moist," or even "moisten." Another female friend has a similar aversion to "suckle."

So two questions: 1. Is this a phenomenon with which you are familiar? Have there been any studies about this type of "word aversion?" and 2. Is this a issue that is more likely to affect women (since I know of no men who have similar aversions)?

I've never come across it before, but a little web searching suggests that this sort of thing is pretty common. Many people cite a reaction to moist, along with some other specific words such as panties. I haven't found any systematic studies -- if you know of any, please tell me. Nor do I know whether there are sex differences. The web search found mainly female reactions, but that may be because of the way I searched.

Note that we are NOT talking about the kinds of "word rage" often discussed here, where people get angry at jargon or slang associated with a despised group, or upset because a word or phrase is felt to be incorrectly used, or annoyed at language that they perceive as redundant, or overly complicated, or pretentious, or a cliché, or trendy, or politically incorrect. Rather, these are cases where someone finds a word "revolting", "ugly", "disgusting" in itself.

We're also not talking about ethnic slurs, or words that are sexually or religiously taboo or offensive (though some of the words do have sexual associations, even if weak ones).

Sometimes people say that they "hate" these words, but this seems less the angry kind of "hate", and more the "cringe", "shudder", "shiver", "gives me the willies" kind.

(The discussions that I've found on the web don't distinguish this "moist words" reaction from anger and annoyance at jargon, slang, word misuse, rudeness and taboo violations -- the quotes below are selected and edited so as to focus on the topic of interest here.)

Thus Lisa at Put Zee Candle Beck wrote ("Word aversion", 12/1/2006):

There is one word that I hate above all others. If I come across it, I must immediately declare my hatred of it to anyone who is there to listen. If there’s no one around, I’ll resort to primal arghing and hit the page where the word resides.

The word is . . . hardscrabble.

I don’t have a logical reason for hating this word. I haven’t had a traumatic experience with it in the past.

I simply find it revolting. It’s ugly.

Among the reactions from her commenters:

Anonymous: Luggage. Can't stand that word. Luggage. It just feels gross.
Raul: I hate the word pugilist.
grudge girl: Tissue. *shiver* It just gives me the willies.
Anonymous: my girlfriend's sister hates the words "moist fist" used together. we think it says something about her...
Steph: Panties. It always has a sort of creepy pedophila connection for some reason or other. Undies is fine. Thong, okay, just never panties. Ugh.

And back on 6/2/2003, in the perfect world forum, "kismet" wrote:

You know they're out there, words that make you need a cool cloth to your head when someone says them aloud. Words that can ruin enjoyment of a decent novel.

Share your (moist, creamy) instruments of torture here.


Obviously, I hate moist. And creamy.
I'm not too fond of fleshy, either.

Among the 1,694 responses:

Elizabeth Barrett: moist and panties. Either separately or in conjunction. Blech.
Em T.: My mother hated gut. Would not let us say it, as if it were the worst word in English.
Maizie B.: goosepimple
kismet: Oh, I hate panties too! Everybody I know has to refer to them as underthings.
VanPear: I guess it's two words, but mother's milk squicks me terribly.
susan b.: I hate "chunk" and "chunky". I also hate "wedge". "Cut into wedges". "serve with a wedge of cheese". Ick. I also hate "moist". And I dislike "meal".
Eustacia: Baffle. Squab. Cornucopia.
Reggae Junkie: Big toe. Navel. Armpit. Lunch meat. insert. bra strap
Harri P. Boob. Panties. Swimsuit.
kismet: Giggle. Hate hate HATE giggle. With the concentrated hatred of a thousand hate filled suns.
BlueBirthday: I hate the word "moist" so much I can hardly type it.
sohcahtoa: I hate "gig", "motif", and "whimsy". No rational reason, just hate them.
Diana Barry: "Navel" and "furtive." Ugh.
Cathy Georges: Also clabber and squall. And plumbago.

On 8/13/2007 in the cincymoms forum, "UndomesticGoddess125" asked:

Is there any phrase or word in the English vernacular that just makes your hair stand on end? ... I really hate the word "egg". It feels weird in my mouth.

Among the responses:

babsmama: the words moist and yeast, not sure why, but I cringe every time I hear those.
gwbjdk: The word Crudd (sp?), in place of dirt, and the word Chunks. It just sounds so gross. My husband will use them sometimes, just to see me give that yucky face I always give when hearing them.
Chrissy341: I don't really have any, but my sister hates the words moist and the word panties (not together lol). So whenever I have cake I always tell her how moist it is so #1 she grimices (sp?) and #2 more cake for me!!!
WestChesterMommy: I hate the word "moist" too! How odd.
mamadejjm: "moist" (yuk - hate even typing it). "p_ssy" (put a U in the blank). "Panties" (just ick).
2OBoys: Moist. YUCK. Don't know why.
Kimberlydawn: I absolutely hate the word panties. I don't like to read it or hear anyone say it.

Some more random anti-moistness:

In this interview with J.T. Ellison, she says

EE: What is your least favorite sound? Or word?
JT: I cringe every time I hear the word 'moist'. I just don't like it. It's icky.

On 12/18/2002, Michelle Howey asked "What would you like to rename? What words bother you?" and got these responses, among others:

Megan: The word “moist” bothers me. It’s funny, ‘cause on Jeopardy the other day, they had the topic “Moist Things.” I guess David Letterman had a top 10 of topics that would never be on Jeopardy, and just to spite him, Alex Trebeck had it on there. Or the writers on the show did, rather.
I hearby cancel the word moist. You can now only use the word ‘damp.’
Other words I hate: 1) creamy 2) catsup (it’s fuckin’ ketchup, ok?) 3) goiter
becca: megan, it’s funny that you said moist, because i can’t stand that word either. can’t even say it.
mihow: I actually wrote about hating the word “moist” before on here. I started to today and then erased it for fear of repeating myself.
freakgirl: “slacks.” I HATE that word.
tobyjoe: i swear i have known at least 5 girls in my life, aside from present company, who cringe at the words “moist” and “panties”
i dare you to find a guy who cringes at those two words (invalid if you add the words “of Oprah”)

And the mother lode of moist aversion -- on 7/8/2007, Heather Hunter at This Fish Needs a Bicycle interviewing her "favorite commenter", Mike from Chicago:

Q: What's your least favorite word (mine is a tie between 'fudge' and 'moist.' Though, 'panties' is pretty excruciating, too) ...
A: That's easy. Least favorite word: conduit.

Among the comments:

ladykatya: My sister also hates the words 'moist' and 'panties'. I, however, find it HILARIOUS to walk behind her at the mall whispering over and over "moist panties. moist panties. moist panties". She turns this lovely shade of red as she gets more upset with me. ;)
Sunshine: Hey Fish, 'moist' (eeewyuck!) is one of my cringe words - I have a personal vendetta against it....and everytime I say 'panties' I frown.
mel: i too hate the word moist. almost as much as i hate the word fondle.
the other amy: I hate the word moist too. And squat. And sprinkle. All disgusting on their own, but really awful combined.
DLB: Moist is pretty bad, and was my cringe word for along time, then my ex introduced me to the word "chum".
Ms. Tabitha: I love that you hate the word "Moist." I have a few friends like that, and the rest of us can't help but say it with every opportunity.
Kristin: Ditto the word moist, I also strongly dislike the word cream.
mindy Moist is totally my least favorite word! I didn't know we had so much in common. (I just physically cringed when I wrote it, as I did when I read it above) My guy friends, and pretty much any aquaintance I have knows this, too, and they use every opportunity they have to use it in a sentence.
kristen: add me to the 'i hate moist and panties and moist panties' club...

Questioned about her choices, Eustacia at the perfect world explained:

I really just don't like those words. I don't dislike their meanings, but phonetically they conjure up all sort of unpleasant textures. 'Baffle' sounds fibrous and tough like a mat of hair, and 'Cornucopia' is too much like 'corpulent'. I won't get started on 'squab'.

I probably need counseling for this, don't I?

This reminds me somewhat of the way that people talk about synesthesia -- I wonder whether there's any connection.

Summing up the linguistic side of this word-willies phenomenon, we observe that some people develop a strong aversion to certain words, without any obvious reason. The words in question are not taboo in the culture at large. Women seem to be more more likely to have this reaction, though perhaps they are just more likely to talk and write about it.. Sounds and sound associations may play a role (the diphthong usually spelled 'oi', certain consonant clusters, etc.); semantic associations may play a role (slimy textures, lower-body garments like panties and slacks); but the process seems pretty random and erratic, also hitting on random-seeming words like hardscrabble, baffle and tissue. Nevertheless, certain specific words (such as moist and panties in English) seem to be frequent victims. This lexical specificity could be because the process is more deterministic than it seems, or because of cultural transmission that doesn't reach the threshold of creating new lexical taboos, but does create a widely-shared aversion to particular words well above chance levels.

[Several readers wrote to draw my attention to the moist v. used item on an internet gender test -- here's the first of these notes to arrive, from bexquisite:

I enjoyed reading your LanguageLog post on gender-based aversions to certain words and was interested to note that according to's Gender Test, which requires users to answer 50 multiple choice questions, which they claim will predict their gender, women who have taken their test (8,028,608 people in total have taken the test) did seem to find the word moist grosser than the word used, relative to men.

25 Which word is grosser?

For instance, here is a live stat from the test:

Which word is grosser?
#27 Moist Used
Men 48% 52%
Women 56% 44%

Most of the other questions are similarly random (another stat they cite is that men are less likely than women to realise that clams are alive, for example) and, for the record, the test incorrectly predicted me as a man (though with only 4% certainly so I guess they think I'm pretty borderline).

And Jessica Pease commented

I remember, back when the quiz first made the internet rounds that it sparked a discussion on several forums/blogs (I couldn't tell from the site how old the quiz was, but it claims to have been taken over eight million times, and, as I recall, it's pretty old in internet time) as to this phenomenon. I wonder if that's an inadvertent cause of the current moist dislike (which I personally can't remember hearing about previous to the quiz/discussion, not that that means anything), or simply another symptom.

The quiz, by the way, pegs me as statistically a man, even though I'd identify myself as a woman.


[Update #2 -- Mrs. Chili wrote:

It's a cultural reference, and I'm not sure it'd be helpful to your inquiry, but there's a show called Dead Like Me (I think it runs on the Sci Fi channel) where a character has an aversion to the word "moist."

The show is about a young woman who is killed in a freakish accident and becomes a grim reaper - someone who collects the souls of the soon-to-be departed just prior to whatever freakish accident will claim their lives. As the main character is adjusting to her new position, she visits her house and, in one episode, actually enters the house and rearranges some refrigerator magnets to spell the word. Her mother sees it later in the episode and seems caught between that initial reaction of being angry at being baited (she and her now dead daughter didn't get along so well in the end) and wondering just how in the hell the word got there in the first place, given that the kid who would have done the letter arranging is dead.

I don't know if that's helpful at all, but it was the first thing that came to mind when I read the article about women having an aversion to the word "moist." Just as an aside, I'm a woman, and that word doesn't faze me at all.

Wow, cringe words are such a cultural commonplace that SciFi-channel writers have a ghost rearrange refrigerator-magnet letters to spell one out -- and I'd never heard of them!]

[Update #3: David Donnell writes:

My ex-wife hated the word "britches".

A girlfriend years before hated the word "wholesome".

And my mom hates the word "crud".

Sure seems like a female thing--anecdotally at least.

And John Cowan writes:

I ran into this once long ago when I was trying to adjust an application that my team had written for a user's preferences. The user told me what was inconvenient about the app, and I cheerily replied, "Okay, we'll just tweak that for you." She was highly offended, and I couldn't figure out why; I tried to switch to "modify" or "adjust", but "tweak" still slipped out once or twice.

Later, I told my wife the story: she suggested that the problem was the association of "tweak" with "nipple(s)"; I couldn't think of anything better either. Nowadays, of course, [tweak UI] and [tweak Firefox] get far more ghits than [tweak nipple].


[Update #4 -- Jill Lundquist reports a cross-language reaction:

I didn't think I had a reaction to "moist" until I ran into it in a Mandarin Chinese context (I've studied Mandarin for several years). A friend of mine's name includes the character 润 (run4 in pinyin), which translates as "moist". I was mortified learning her name, and found myself wanting to cover my face with my hands, amazed that it didn't sound as lewd in Chinese as it did to me. Fortunately I enjoy learning cross-cultural differences. This is rather like having to learn that 'thick' connotes generosity rather than stupidity, only more embarrassing.


[Update #5 -- Ben Zimmer notes that on 5/17/2007 SarahJane at The Rain in my Purse posted about "conjuring gross and beautiful things", and observed that "People hate moist, but have no reaction to mist, or hoist or joist." ]

[Update #6 -- Neven Morgan, who is male, writes:

Excellent article today. I just thought I'd add that while I've hated the word "moist" for the longest time, there's a fouler word:


It has the same mouth feel as "moist", yet it's somehow worse. Must be that "ntm".

I don't think that there are any words that give me this sort of reaction, other than by association with their meanings -- but similarly, I don't see letters and numbers as colors, though I know that some people do.]

[Update #7 -- Lance Nathan wrote to draw our attention to a 1999 Salon article "The Name Game" (from the height of the dotcom bubble, which includes this passage:

It seems that when Altman and Manning presented the name Jamcracker to a client recently, the reception was not everything they had hoped for.
"I put the name up in front of their creative people," Manning says. "There were a couple of women sitting in. One of them got up and said, 'Oh, that's disgusting.' Another said, 'This is really sick.' I said, 'Excuse me, what are you talking about?' They said, 'We can't explain it, but that name is just creeping us out. We don't know what it is, but could you take it off the wall, please?'" Manning remains mystified by the incident. "There's apparently some strange, uncomfortable meaning attached to it in the minds of some women," he says. "God knows what that could be."

Lance points out that

this didn't stop from taking the name. (I hope it's working for them. I have no idea what they do.


[Mary Louise Ray writes:

My nominee for ickiest word:

"Pus." To me, no other word in the English language more accurately evokes what it describes. I have  always thought of it as some kind of variant of onomatopoeia. It doesn't reproduce a putrid (another icky word) sound in word form, but it certainly reproduces a putrid feeling.

And no, hearing/saying "infection" doesn't bother me in the least bit. Slathering Neosporin on my two boys' cuts and scrapes to get rid of infection doesn't bother me. The word "infection" evokes the same image in my mind, but it doesn't make bile crawl up my esophagus in the same manner as "pus." Gawd. What an awful word. I have actually banned my husband and children from saying the word around me.

Thanks for letting me vent; I have hated that word for more than 30 years.

And a psycholinguist friend writes:

I just quickly polled my sons on words they don't like, and the answers startled me.

M__, age& 11: "rough" and "coarse"
Z___, age 8: "hubbub"

Interestingly, neither of them could explain why. There's obviously something semantic going on. Z___ knows what "hubbub" means, but, when pressed, he said it just sounds bad.

Daniel Ginsburg writes:

Today's post about word aversion reminded me of when I was very young. At about age 2, I felt a distinct dislike for certain words. For example, I didn't like people to call me a "boy;" I strongly preferred "guy." While adults probably thought I was trying to seem mature, in reality it was because of phonetics: I didn't like that /oj/ diphthong, and looked for near-synonyms with long vowels. I also preferred "game" to "toy." Short vowels were not as bad as /oj/, but still problematic, and this led me to dislike my own name (Daniel) and go through a series of assumed or invented names with long vowel sounds.

By age 4 I didn't really care about these things any more, and in retrospect found my various name changes to be embarrassing.

I don't know if this is a common developmental stage, but I thought it might be interesting to you after today's post (and the Monty Python clip).

Jay Cummings points out that

Panties is a diminutive, and so might be associated with the childlike female image, as opposed to a more generic term. The film Anatomy of a Murder introduces the word, with much courtroom laughter, as the only truly descriptive term of a specific item. In the movie it was clearly considered to be much more unmentionable than "underwear", and apparently "underpants" was not an option for the court. This was odd to me, but at the time of the movie, "underpants" seemed not to be a description appropriate to women's garments, though the woman had in fact worn pants, and "underwear" would not be specific.

Some additional comments can be found here, here and here. ]

[Ryan Jordan points out that recent episodes of the CBS show How I Met Your Mother have featured a plot line in which Lily, one of the main characters is bothered, to the point of phobia, by the word "moist". Here's part of the recap from Give Me My Remote:

Robin was complaining that her face was dry and needed some moisturizer, and Ted was so kind as to oblige with some that he had in their bathroom.
(Lesson: Lily HATES the word “moist” – it made me crack up laughing, I have a friend who has the same aversion and same cringing reaction to that word and I love using it. And well, *ahem* apparently a someone else around the world has problem with that word too?, so, Lily is not alone)

Here's what Michell Heller at TV Guide had to say:

Lily’s hatred of the word “moist” was just plain eerie, because I’ve had the same problem for as long as I can remember (I also hate “cheese” and “oily”); I almost thought the writers were spying on me for a moment there.

If I'm following the recaps correctly, there's another episode in which Barney puts on a one-man play that leads with many repetitions of the word "moist".]

[More on moist:

Don't say 'tin' to Rebecca, you know how it upsets her
The long moist tail
Morning mailbag
From cringe to offense


Posted by Mark Liberman at August 20, 2007 05:45 AM