Moist, moist, moist… here’s why you (and lily from ‘himym’) despise that word

mtv news staff
10/06/15

“Moist.”

It’s a word that strikes fear into the hearts of many, or at least a general feeling of being grossed out. Ask someone what his or her least favorite word is, and there’s a good chance “moist” is the winner (even though arguably grosser words like “crusty” and “phlegm” exist), as it was for Lily on “How I Met Your Mother.”

So why do we hate on “moist” so much?

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If Barney Stinson’s legendary, hours-long performance of the word isn’t enough to convince you of its cringeworthiness, then a new study might explain it better. Dr. Paul Thibodeau, a cognitive psychologist at Oberlin College in Ohio, conducted “An Exploratory Investigation of Word Aversion,” a deep dive into why people find certain words — with “moist” leading the charge — repellant.

“We find that as many as 20% of the population equates hearing the word ’moist’ to the sound of fingernails scratching a chalkboard,” the researchers wrote (warning: NSFW language), even referencing “HIMYM” and the Facebook group “I HATE the word MOIST.”

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By looking at potential causes for word aversion — the sound of a word, the facial expressions associated with saying a word, the word’s implications — Thibodeau and his team were able to isolate just what it is about “moist” that makes us forget it’s often a descriptor for beloved treats like cake.

Surprisingly, it’s not the actual sound of the word that turns people off, the researchers found. Even though it was a “tantalizing possibility … that words like ’moist’ are aversive because speaking them engages facial muscles that correspond to expressions of disgust,” instead it’s the meaning of the word that gets folks cringing. Synonyms of moist, like “damp,” were also pretty reviled, whereas similar-sounding words like “hoist,” “foist” or “rejoiced” didn’t bother people as much.

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Thibodeau and his team attributed this outcome to the words’ connections to body functions and sexual acts. However, when “moist” is followed by a food-related word such as “cake,” people don’t mind it as much, because who doesn’t enjoy (moist) cake?

As for who is likely to hate the word, the researchers concluded that younger and less talkative people may be more affected, and “such an aversion is related to age, neuroticism, and a particular kind of disgust: to bodily functions (and not [the sound] of the word).” However, they noted, “further work is warranted” to fully comprehend the phenomenon. We’re willing to bet Barney would be happy to help out.

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