Scientists have conducted an experiment to understand why people have such strong aversions to words like ‘moist’.

Linguistics applicants should be interested to know that there were three clear hypotheses as to why people have an aversion to words. The first was the sound of the word, the second, the word’s connotations and finally, social transmission of the idea that the word is disgusting. In the first point, scientists were trying to understand if it was the phonetics and rhythms of the word itself which had an internally structured element of ‘disgust’ – if words in and of themselves can cause repulsion.

Paul Thibodeau, a cognitive Psychologist from Oberlin College and researcher on this topic, asked people’s opinions on words like moist, as well as words linked to bodily function such as phlegm and puke. He then asked people’s opinions on words with a similar sound to moist, like foist, hoist and rejoiced. The study found that people averse to the word moist were much more averse to words related to bodily function than they were to similarly sounding words, suggesting the meaning behind moist is what gives rise to its unpopularity.

Additionally, the researchers found a social component, as was part of their initial hypotheses. Participants in the study watched two videos – one where people were saying the word moist without relation to a particular object, and the second of people using the word to describe cake. Overwhelmingly, people who watched the first video had much more disgust for the word. Modern Languages and English Literature applicants should consider how the social transmission of language throughout history has also transmitted the weight and context of those words; for example, why slang comes in and out of fashion.

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