P.H. Thibodeau, C. Bromberg, R. Hernandez, Z. Wilson, ‘An Exploratory Investigation of Word Aversion’, Proceedings of the 36th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, 2014: https://mindmodeling.org/cogsci2014/papers/276/paper276.pdf
This is the sort of thing this is all about. This paper aims to understand how certain words produce strong effects. It does not turn towards literature, where creating strong effects from words is a highly evolved practice, or towards literary criticism, where explaining and categorising and arguing for these effects are also highly evolved. I shall, of course, try to make that turn, because that is the sort of thing this is all about. However, it would be nice to think that turn could be made from the direction of science.
People don’t like the word ‘moist’. As Thibodeau et al. say, there is anecdotal evidence for widespread distaste caused by saying or hearing the word. This idea has been around for a while in popular culture. They replicate this in their experiments, showing that indeed some people, especially those who are younger, more prone to neuroses, more socially sensitive, and more likely to be disgusted by bodily functions, experience significant aversion.
They move on to test theories as to why this aversion should exist. The conclude that semantic connotations are the key reason: ‘moist’ has an association with sex and intimacy, and people find themselves troubled by saying it. Subjects found it particularly aversive after ‘unrelated positive words’ (e.g. paradise) and ‘sexual words’ (e.g. fuck), but less aversive when it followed ‘unrelated negative words’.
They also considered whether the combination of phonemes – the sound of the word – was a contributing factor, as many said it was. It is a word that travels around lips and tongue and teeth; it brings home to us that words are things that are made with our mouths, things of touch and taste, not just of sound. Thibodeau et al. did not find any equivalent effect in similar sounds – foist, rejoiced – but I think the unique phonetic combination, starting with lips together in ‘m’, is hard to match. A nice theory, which they also doubt, is that ‘moist’ and some other words involve ‘facial feedback’: forming the word involves muscles that make key expressions, e.g. disgust, and this causes an association.
Although I don’t doubt the coherence of their conclusion that semantic associations are the main cause of aversion, I wouldn’t dismiss the contribution of sound too soon. Speakers linger on it, as it lingers on them, more than they do with ‘hard’ (capable of producing double entendre; phonetically less distinctive). Also, there are some literary instances that point a little way in this direction.
Thibodeau et al. introduced the idea of ‘paradise’, and that made me link up their interest in word aversion with Milton’s poem Paradise Lost. This epic aims to depict various unreachable things – heaven, hell, paradise – and it takes on board the thought that its language for doing so must in theory be inadequate, because it derives from the fallen world. Milton involves his readers in this problem in various ways: one way is by using words that cause problematic associations (of sex, for example – ‘wanton’ is a classic case) when what is being depicted is meant to be sinless and perfect. The aversive qualities of a word like ‘moist’ might be ideal for this purpose, causing a readerly shudder as something unimpeachable is being described.
The history of the word ‘moist’ is important here, because the specific sexual connotations that are so important in the scientific account do not apply straightforwardly in Milton’s time. In the Oxford English Dictionary the specific sense 1g (‘Of the vagina: lubricated, as in a state of sexual arousal’) dates from 1958. There may therefore be a short-term story in which sexual liberation led to new words for candid description, which in turn led to an aversive backlash.
Older senses of the word seem relatively tame: 1a is the core sense, ‘Slightly wet, imbued with moisture; containing liquid in a state of suspension or absorption; not dry; damp, humid’, capable of being good (cake) as well as bad (oh, I don’t know – furniture). In Milton’s time it was often used around eyes, to suggest tears or elderly rheuminess. It has another sense, also important in that period, outlined as sense 2 in the Dictionary: ‘Chiefly Hist. Sci. Designating a quality associated with wetness and regarded in medieval and later times as one of the four qualities inherent in all things and characterizing the four elements’.
In Paradise Lost, then, the sexual connotation is not distinctly there, so any sense that the word’s aversive potential is being exploited is more likely to arise from its sound. Most uses of ‘moist’ and ‘moisture’ describe elemental wetness, but on a couple of occasions there may be something to work with. The first passage is part of the creation of the world in Book 7:
The earth was formed, but in the womb as yet
Of waters, embryon immature involved,
Appeared not: over all the face of earth
Main ocean flowed, not idle, but with warm
Prolific humour soft’ning all her globe,
Fermented the Great Mother to conceive,
Satiate with genial moisture, when God said
Be gathered now ye waters under heav’n
Into one place, and let dry land appear.
One of the things that makes Paradise Lost so great is its willingness to show the stretch and strain of its linguistic resources. Faced with describing the beginning of the earth, it gives us plain speech from God, but manifest effort from the narrative voice. ‘Fermented’ is a brilliant word, and the reader has to reorganise and quieten some associations of the word (beer, yeast, bubbles, wine) to get at what is happening here. The key phrase, ‘satiate with genial moisture’, i.e. ‘sufficiently full of the generative fluids necessary for creation’, is compact and, I would argue, allows the phonetic pull of ‘moist’ to give physical texture to what is being depicted. This texture is helpfully vivid but it is also problematic: the word draws us into a physicality that we cannot really imagine. My suggestion here is that Milton is exploiting a quality in the word which, while not exactly aversive, engages more senses than are necessarily comfortable.
The second passage is part of Adam’s description of his own creation, when he woke to find himself in paradise. Again ‘moisture’ refers to the word’s spontaneous fertility:
So spake the Godlike Power, and thus our sire.
For man to tell how human life began
Is hard; for who himself beginning knew?
Desire with thee still longer to converse
Induced me. As new waked from soundest sleep
Soft on the flow’ry herb I found me laid
In balmy sweat, which with his beams the sun
Soon dried, and on the reeking moisture fed.
We have to translate our own experiences of waking ‘in… sweat’ into something wondrously and innocently delightful. And we have to make ‘reeking moisture’ into a lovely mist. ‘Reeking’ also had fewer negative connotations then, and could more readily just mean ‘steaming’. In ‘moisture’ again I think there is again a pause, where sensory turns to sensuous and even to sensual, as the word creates a texture, an oral savour, that is hard to fit into the scene. Perhaps we are meant to let the word roll around the mouth, and then realise how far we are from truly appreciating Adam’s experience.
These are not cases of word aversion, but they are instances of the word that suggest that a great writer, who was utterly immersed in the possibilities of words in numerous languages, recognised its capacity to engage our senses in complex ways.
SEQUEL COMING SOON: Murder Moist Foul, in which I turn to Shakespeare.