Word Aversion: Do Certain Words Annoy or Disgust You?

Have you ever just found a word to be annoying or disgusting? Whenever you hear it, it makes you cringe? Or perhaps it even evokes some kind of anger or intense frustration? Some people have reacted to the word “moist” or even “slacks” with such emotions.


Word aversions are when you feel negative emotions regarding a word, even if the word does not directly refer to the feeling you associate with it. They are similar to phobias, says Jason Riggle, a professor in the department of linguistics at the University of Chicago . He says that the words don’t create outrage us as much as they create responses from the body, or visceral reactions. The word brings about a highly specific and somewhat unusual association with imagery or a scenario that people would typically find disgusting—but don’t typically associate with the word.


But Why That Word?

So then the question becomes: What is it about certain words that makes certain people want to puke? Riggle thinks the phenomenon may be dependent on social interactions and media coverage. Comedians, for example, have brought up the gross qualities of the word “moist,” and that has therefore put the thought in people’s minds, that it’s a gross word. It could be that disgust is a very social emotion. And in an era of YouTube, Twitter, Vine, BuzzFeed top-20 gross-out lists, and so on, trends, even the most icky ones, spread fast.


Words do have the power to disgust and repulse, though—that, at least, has been demonstrated in scholarly investigations. Natasha Fedotova, a Ph.D. student studying psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, recently told Slate that she conducted research examining the extent to which individuals connect the properties of an especially repellent thing to the word that represents it.

She used an example with the word “rat,” which unfortunately can immediately be thought of as a dirty and disgusting animal to some people. If you serve people who are grossed out by rats Big Macs on plates that have the word rat written on them, some people will be less likely to want to eat the portion of the burger that touched the word. Humans, in these instances, go so far as to treat gross-out words “as though they can transfer negative properties through physical contact,” says Fedotova.


The People Have Voted

A New York Times article asked readers to name everyday words that repelled them, and “slacks” was one of the front-runners. But the word for pants couldn’t compete with a term for female underpants. Dozens of readers commented on their dislike of the word “panties.” It was the most commonly cited word in a comments section that drew more than 1,600 responses.


Amanda Danielle, of Fairfield, Calif., wrote, “When I hear anyone use this word in any way, I feel so disgusted and violated that I actually become nauseous.

“I have no explanation as to why this happens to me,” she added. “I know it is a perfectly normal word, but I personally prefer the word underwear.”

A great deal of the words mentioned in the comments section were related to body parts and bodily functions. Terms for male and female genitalia appeared multiple times, as did words such as groin, crotch, belly, flesh, flabby, tummy, turd, and pimple.
Words describing various sorts of vocalizations were mentioned so frequently that they could be cataloged in alphabetical order. The G’s alone would include the words gulp, gargle, grunt, groan and gasp.


Some readers strung together multiple words to form aversive sentences.

“I read this just after stroking my moist slacks to remove phlegm that must have come from a crevice on the luggage in my Ford Probe,” wrote Clyde, from North Carolina, adding “It left me in a lather.”

Ugh, I’m gonna be sick.

What Words Do NuSkool Readers Find Gross?

Now, if you would be so kind, please take this poll so we at NuSkool can form our own sample of survey data.


Some media may contain mature content. Discretion is advised when viewing with students.

Moist,’ ew: Why do certain words make us cringe?

Guys says 'moist' to a girl 9 times without her noticing
Lesson Plan

Lesson Objective: Students will participate in an online poll regarding the Word Aversion phenomenon. They will then have the opportunity to apply the experience and results to the study of psychological statistical analysis.

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Lesson tags: Eleventh, Ninth, Pop Culture, Science, Social Studies, Tenth

Melissa Pelletier

Melissa has a Masters in Educational Communication and Technology from NYU. She has worked in academic publishing, games, and the educational toys industries.