Overweening Generalist

Thursday, February 27, 2014

"Moist Panties": The Oddity of Word Aversion

Whilst reading a collection of articles on slang, trying to get a line on how it's created by in-groups in order to define themselves and give members a sense of belonging, and how created slang words make their way into mainstream culture, I happened upon the apparently mysterious linguistic topic of word aversion.

I'll get to moist panties in a sec, but I wonder what y'all make of sentences such as, "After a nourishing hot meal it was Tad's brainchild to make fudge, but feeling suddenly like he needed to vomit, he dropped the spoon, wiped his slacks, felt like puke, and threw his sweaty shirt into the crevice of his couch." Or: "The hardscrabble pugilist towed his luggage into his man-cave, his brow felt viscous and the scab began to ooze. He wondered if he'd ever win a bout again, and if this was the new normal."

Okay, I admit these sentences seem ripped from a Bulwer-Lytton Bad Writing contest, but I crammed in as many words as I could that people reported having a visceral reaction to...for seemingly no good reason at all. There are no "swear" words here. The words seem pedestrian, inoffensive.

U. of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman gives this definition for word aversion:

"A feeling of intense, irrational distaste for the sound or sight of a particular word or phrase, not because its use is regarded as etymologically or logically or grammatically wrong, nor because it's felt to be overused or trendy or non-standard, but simply because the word itself somehow feels unpleasant or even disgusting." 

I read this and, similar to the association Proust had with madeleines, I remembered a conversation with a friend in which he brought up how much he couldn't stand the word "ointment." Just the sound of it bothered him. He was otherwise of very sound mind.

So, I swerved and started reading on word aversion. It seems a lot of us have these words that really bug us, but scholars don't know why, or what percentage of the population has these aversions, or how old the phenomenon is, whether it's similar to disgust over sounds, smells or tastes, or if bilingual people - who have more of a sense of how arbitrary words and meanings are - are less prone to word aversion.


Sarah Fentem of The Atlantic really hates the word "panties." She goes on about why, and while I get where she's coming from, I happen to love the word "panties." Fentem seems to think it connotes patriarchy and making women's undergarments (the lower one) into a little girl thing. It's undignified, I guess. For me, it makes me slightly randy, and I don't think of women as anything less than men; au contraire: women might be better than us men. Or I find myself often thinking so...What's interesting is that Fentem seems to have a lot of company.

But the all-time gross-out word, or at least recently, in English, seems to be "moist." Which...I don't understand. Here's another word I think perfectly lovely. In reading on the aversion for "moist," I learn it migrated to us from the French in the 14th century, and meant "damp." The French got it from a Latin word that denoted that which is slimy, moldy, mushy, and possibly associated with disease.

I use "amazing" too much, and I'm not happy about it, but many others abuse it to the point where it almost disgusts me. "Your hair...is amazing!" No, it's not. Very few hairdos are truly "amazing," but let's not go down that road. I dislike the word "amazing" because of its overuse, so that doesn't qualify under Prof. Liberman's definition.

Others declare they detest the word "like" as a placeholder in everyday conversation, and I agree, but that doesn't qualify under the Liberman definition either. When college students are asked what words they dislike they often trot out pus, mucous, phlegm, vomit, puke, crud, scab and ooze, but the disgust issue seems to be baked on there. And besides, I really like all those words. They don't disgust me; I'm not aversive to them.

But why did other people cite brainchild, slacks, navel, squab, cornucopia, pugilist and goose pimple? This is where it gets interesting. Interesting-weird. To me, anyway...

I tried to compile a list, over the past two days, of words that seem to bug me, for no good reason. I came up with:

dust bunnies: I think I don't like this because I remember my mom picking up the term from TV she'd recently watched, and I guess maybe this lowbrow acquisition bothered my affected and wanna-be highbrow pretenses at the time. The aversion to the term has stuck for 30-odd years.

yummy: I almost feel apologetic for admitting this one. After all, it's an extremely common expression of joy over food, and lately: the good looks of someone else, and it seems that women will say it about hunky men far more than men about alluring women. I think maybe it seems too childish for me? As I said: I apologize to all of you, but Liberman does say it's an "irrational distaste."

FWB/friends with benefits: Gawd, I hated this from the get-go, as soon as I understood the acronym. Have your flings! Be far more..."French" folks! Enjoy your dalliances. But to couch your carnal sex-partner in terms from the workplace? "Benefits"? Now that I'm forced to write about it, I'd prefer "fuck pal" as it's so up-front and unapologetic, brazen even. The "benefits" connotes the Human Resources person down the hall, sick days, the rec room at work. Come to think of it, FWB doesn't disgust me. It pisses me off. I think of John Dewey's term for people who are so caught up in their work it's their whole goddamned life; they can't talk about anything else, even when off work. And it's BORING to listen to: who in the office said what when so-and-so showed up dressed like blah blah and then the thing that another person at work knows that the other person doesn't know they know and that some other co-worker might be gay, etc: Dewey's term: "occupational psychosis." Fuck FWB! And maybe FWB wouldn't count with Liberman, I'm not sure: my distaste seems rational to me, not "irrational."

foodie: I loathe this term, but I think I've unpacked it and it's about class and pretentiousness. I use it, but only within the context of jokes. I saw a sketch comedy bit where a guy with AIDS walks out on his date because she says in passing she's gluten-free and he says he's a foodie and that disgusts him. "Gluten-free is bullshit! I'm outta here!" I can imagine a few friends reading this and later bringing it up, because they use "foodie" all the time, and I try to hide my wincing. Hoo-boy...

upscale: I think I hate this word for roughly the same reason I hate foodie. It doesn't seem like panties or moist or crevice to me. I maybe think far too much about words...I will use "upscale" in an ironic or comic sense, too.

The American people...: A lifetime of having my Crap Detector on while politicians and other demagogues speak has me recoiling in a visceral rictus of hate for this term. It's a term that's supposed to instantly hypnotize its audience, and it only adds to my hatred of it because it seems like it works well enough for the assholes who use it.

convo: I see this in writing. People want to get together for drinks and some conversation. Only they write "convo," which strongly suggests to me they have nothing to say that could even possibly be of remote interest to me. I think this one fits Liberman's definition. I feel an irrationality in my distaste for this term.

And finally: I would like to murder and get away unpunished anytime a person says:

The F-bomb: The layers of ignorance and sheer idiocy this term connotes, for me? I can't even go into it here, now. Suffice: if you say that someone "dropped an F-bomb" I will want to drop you, hopefully with blood oozing out of your ears. FUCK seems like a perfectly lovely word to me. Jesus H. Muthafucking Christ on a pogo stick: GROW THE FUCK UP, AMERICA!

Another scholar, Jason Riggle of U. of Chicago, says word aversion seems highly specific in evoking a visceral reaction, but about feelings of disgust, not moral outrage or annoyance. The words that disgust people seem to conjur up an association of imagery or some scenario. I'm not sure any of my words work here from his perspective. And if so, it has been suggested that the people who aren't bothered by moist panties covered in crud in a crevice, who might need to put some ointment on that scab that's oozing pus? They're people who work with words and writing every day. I have since I was five years old.

Robert Anton Wilson was not word-aversive, and his first published book was a dictionary of slang and "forbidden words." He'd wanted to discuss how irrational semantic reactions to some words which acted like spells on listeners and readers, but the publishers cut out those parts. In the last decade or so of his life he wrote an essay about "fuck" and other words that we're supposed to be scandalized by...even "liberals" will seek to harm your career if you use these black magick words. RAW begins his essay, "Copulating Currency," with these lines:

James Joyce defined an artistic epiphany as any "vulgarity of language" which reveals the "whatness" or "radiance" of an event or of those structural systems which remain "grave and constant in human affairs." As biographer Richard Ellmann noted, the effect of these fragments on conversation, preserved in Joyce's novels, often appears "uncanny." I myself tend to find them a combination of the tragic and the hilarious. - see p.171, TSOG: The Thing That Ate The Constitution

The linguistic scholars who have yet to formally delve into word aversion have already banished Alfred Korzybski to the Region of Thud; he is declasse in the groves of academe. But he'd already come up with a robust theory that covers much of this ground: we have "semantic reactions" to words and they work throughout the nervous system (NB: the current linguistic professors' use of "visceral"), and, well, let's let Korzybski speak from 1933 to us, the time being bound:

Since "knowledge", then, is not the first order un-speakable objective level, whether an object, a feeling; structure and so relations, becomes the only possible content of "knowledge" and of meanings. On the lowest level of our analysis, when we explore the objective level (the unspeakable feelings in this case), we must try to define every "meaning" as a conscious feeling of actual, or assumed, or wished...relations which pertain to first-order objective entities [...] The meanings of meanings, in a given case, represent composite, affective, psycho-logical configurations of all relations pertaining to the case, coloured by past experiences, state of health, mood of the moment, and other contingencies.
-pp.22-23, Science and Sanity

Korzybski was the one who cautioned us: the word is not the thing; the word "water" will not make you wet. A later student of Korzybski paraphrased him: the menu is not the meal. We should try to constantly remind ourselves, via a "consciousness of abstracting" that we are throwing around abstract words and maybe we don't even know what we're talking about. Does the "National Debt" have a certain odor? What color is it? How much does it weigh? If we can't give good answers to these types of questions, we may be tossing around a high-order abstraction as if it were on the same level as the hammer on the table in front of you.

Natasha Fedotova of the U. of Pennsylvania found that the word "rat" can "contaminate" words next to it. I hope you have a good rat time tonight at the cafe with all your friends! (Wha?) Fedotova served perfectly delicious food on plates that said RAT on them; people tended to not want to eat.

Here's my kinda guy: blogger Ted McCagg. He got the idea to determine the best word ever. Not the most erudite or funniest or most whimsical: "the best." And all sorts of people got involved and he laid out a massive competition, like the college basketball "March Madness" style of brackets. He loves words like Wilson and Joyce did...and George Carlin, indeed. I too like kerfuffle, hornswoggle, gherkin and diphthong. I even like viscous and maggots.

And, of course, moist panties.

[Apologies to all who have been harmed by certain words in this blog!]


Eric Wagner said...

"Is, am, are, was, were, be, being, was." I think Bob Wilson experimented with word-aversion with his experiments with E-Prime and his avoidance of the first person for a week, etc.

My tenth graders had "Like Awareness Week" last year.

Re "convo": Dictionary.com's word of the day today - "deipnosophist
\ dahyp-NOS-uh-fist \...a person who is an adept conversationalist at table."

Terrific piece, as usual, by an overweening deipnosophist.

PS Thanks for the Proust reference.

Bobby Campbell said...

Ha! I just had this conversation 2 nights ago!

3 girls all expressing their extreme discomfort w/ the word "moist."

Which I've heard numerous other times from several other ladies as well. Along w/ "panties" also.

"creamy" - "milky" - "sticky" and similar words seem to have a similar effect.

It seems to me to tend towards a gender specific phenomena. (Though w/ the assumption that gender is a spectrum attribute)

My best guess: Sombunal females don't like words appropriated as pornographic euphemisms.

Penthouse letter language.

But why?

Distaste for patriarchal objectification?

Higher sensitivity to language based on bicameral language processing?

Preference for emotional rather than physical components of sexuality?

All that and more!?

Thanks for the outlet to express my thoughts on this particular matter! I couldn't press the convo w/ my lady friends w/out causing them undo discomfort.

Anonymous said...

Like Awareness Week is that similar
to awareness but not quite the same?

Is a border of rats around the plate
a cure for obesity ?

Conjuring images of moist panties
and how they got that way seems like
a noble day dreaming exercise.

I think the cognitive structure that
the senses build around a word from
those associations have a lot to
do with aversion. There's also a
strange inner linkage between word
and shape that rarely comes to the
surface of thought.

My favorite aversion combination
is everybody agrees that ... !
Like the scot in Braveheart said
they canna agree on the colour of
shit. I'm sure we can all agree
to make sure we disagree if only
to keep the conversation going.

Great topic, I'm sure Mrs. Grundy
will give it a sniff with her up
turned nose.

michael said...


I'd like to think I've cultivated my deipnosophistic chops over the years.

The see your point about E-Prime and avoidance of "I" statements, etc. I tend to categorize those experiments as more along the lines of the philosophy of the OULIPO group: imposed constraints help to generate texts and a perhaps novel quality of prose.

I thought of you when I dropped Marcel in.

michael said...

Bobby- I appreciate your convo on this and frankly, I feel a sense of envy towards you now.

You sit around with females and listen to them talk about their attitudes towards the creamy, milky, sticky, panties and moistness? Just the picture in my mind is...well...

In the article I linked about the aversion to "panties" she gives us this test: imagine your grandpa saying the word to you. For her and other women, it's clarifying and revelatory and just EWWWW!

But I feel happy for grandpa. And still: I assert myself as a pro-sex gender equity feminist.

It's a good exercize for me to try to get into your female friends' minds and understand the aversion to Penthouse's uses of those words, but to me, the real message is: they're giving too much power to the porn-writers of those "letters" to the Forum: the stronger political move seems always to take back those words and turn them in your favor. Otherwise, They will just claim more words from you, and create more semantic reactions. Think of how basic and powerful "milky" is! Females give this to the world! It's help sustain civilizations! Sure, this thinking in "history" seems grossly underappreciated, but we have work to do.

To keep going with that point: once we fall into what RAW called "logophobia" we create all sorts of besides-the-point problems; it diverts us from the real problems: creeping fascism and inequality; the surv-state; world poverty and hunger; ecological problems.

michael said...


"Everybody agrees that..." pisses me off too. It's in the same cog-space for me as "The American people..."

The idea of below-surface word-shape relation truly fascinates me.

Someone in one of the articles I linked to noted that the aversion to "moist" does not generalize to the words "hoist" and "joist." There seems some very deep connection between the neurophysiology of disgust and revulsion and lexical aspects. I'd guess there's a snapshot-window of a bad moment that goes along with these word aversions, but I'd like to see some serious studies done.

Re: "rat" and obesity: even weirder: there's mounting scientific evidence that something we learned from fecal transplants has given us an inroad to gut bacteria ratios and obesity, and furthermore, we had no idea how certain bacteria in our gut could influence our psychological states. Very very weird and wonderful stuff to me. And promising for those who diet and exercise and still can't lose weight.

I hope to get a blogspew on this soon.