Why do we hate certain words?
‘Language is wine upon the lips,’ remarked Virginia Woolf, and for Woolf’s own elaborate, luminous prose, the phrase seems to hold true. Yet it is also true that some words hardly leave us feeling contented or luxuriated, as a glass of fine wine might.
Moist, for example, consistently tops ‘most hated words’ lists. ‘Least favorite word’ polls, virulent Facebook pages (‘I HATE the word MOIST!’), anti-moist articles, and even psychologists (who have proved that our aversion to moist has to do with the word’s associations and common contexts, not its sound: individuals aren’t usually as passionate about foist or hoist) have made it impossible not to feel a bit, er, uncomfortable when hearing about a ‘moist, rainy day’ – or even something as innocuous as a ‘moist scone’.
But it’s hard to know whether moist would be as universally unpopular if public outcry against the term wasn’t so deafening. Are we suffering from onomatophobia – fear or hatred of a certain word or name – or have we merely encountered a linguistic positive feedback loop?
Literally, slacks, pimple: these words, too, have garnered nitpicky responses from online commentators. In 2012, The New Yorker banned the word slacks from their website for a week after fielding Twitter users’ complaints about the seemingly inoffensive sartorial term. Former US Vice President Joe Biden earned the ire of word nerds worldwide when he used literally ten times in his 2012 speech at the Democratic National Convention. ‘Does anyone else hate the words pimple and zit??’ demand forum users, even as ‘pimple popping’ continues to entrance a subset of the population (with noticeably strong stomachs).
But it’s impossible to pinpoint a common problem with all of these words, and it’s impossible to extirpate all of them. Some, like moist, pimple, and phlegm, become victims of lexical fury for the unpleasant images they conjure up. But many of these sorts of words are necessary for medical lexicons, and moist, for example, has its own significance in literature. Stepan Arkadyevitch, from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, emits a ‘moist and blissful yawn’ – perhaps an unsavory image, given its salivary connotations, but the language is remarkable. Tolstoy’s words accurately and succinctly conjure the sensation of yawning. (Try a yawn yourself; it’s hard to describe it without thinking about the word moist!)
Similarly, in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, Eliot’s narrator describes a damp riverside scene that hinges powerfully on the noun moistness:
As I look at the full stream, the vivid grass, the delicate bright-green powder softening the outline of the great trunks and branches that gleam from under the bare purple boughs, I am in love with moistness.
Few among us today would profess to be ‘in love with moistness’, but in reading Eliot, it’s easy to see that moistness in a landscape can be splendorous, even paradisiacal.
Apart from strange or repulsive associations, what other reasons drive us to dislike certain words?
Appearance: To some eyes, cooperative looks bulky, in desperate need of a separating hyphen (and the technique of adding a diaeresis to the second ‘o’ to form ‘coöperate’, indicating that the second vowel forms a separate syllable, might seem like a bit of a cop-out).
Pronunciation: Ointment, with its opening ‘oi’ sound, might make a speaker feel like an oinking pig – the sound is awkward and guttural to make.
Function (or lack thereof): Literally and awesome are often flagged for overuse, so commonly dispensed that the words become meaningless fluff or crutch terms – not unlike like – that we use to stall for time or emphasize a point or idea. (‘Pretty much everything that isn’t terrible is awesome in America now,’ complains writer David Sedaris in his memoir Calypso.)
Hyper-popularity: Buzzwords and catchy slang – bromance, AF, aesthetic, bae, basic, extra, FOMO, IDGAF, lit, and so many more – tend to exasperate after they’ve been in circulation for a while, though they are often reincarnated as objects for ironic appropriation. (FOMO, or ‘fear of missing out’, a once-beloved millennial term, now has a tongue-in-cheek counterpart: JOMO, or ‘joy of missing out.’)
Errata: For writers, commonly misspelled words like accommodation, occurring, and the non-word irregardless, a dialectical error so popular and widely heard it’s earned an Oxford Dictionaries entry (as a ‘non-standard’ term), frequently frustrate.
Disliking words is human, just as disliking things in general is human. We can’t shake the habit, no matter how many times we’re told to ‘look on the bright side or ‘find the silver lining’ of things. But it’s draining to be so negative about the language that gets us through life, helping us to interact with others and describe the rich, diverse world around us. (Whether we’re faced with a rainy day or a delicious piece of cake, we need moist, despite its many vehement critics!)
I suggest we all take a moment to think about our favorite word: a word that makes us smile, chuckle, or even gasp with amazement (ever heard of the transitive verb exeleutherostomize, selected as a favorite word by one Oxford Dictionaries lexicographer?). For me, it’s the delightful word kerfuffle, which is pleasing to pronounce, amusing to spell, and, in my opinion, somewhat underused. (Could we say that all of the vitriol surrounding moist constitutes a bit of a kerfuffle?)
What words do you love, and why do you love them? Fascinating etymologies, humorous pronunciations, complicated or attention-grabbing definitions – the possibilities are endless. Your move!