An Exploratory Investigation of Word Aversion

Paul ThibodeauOberlin College
Christopher BrombergOberlin College
Robby HernandezTrinity University
Zachary WilsonTrinity University

Abstract

Why do people self-report an aversion to words like “moist”? The present study represents an initial scientific exploration into the phenomenon of word aversion by investigating its prevalence and cause. We find that as many as 20% of the population equates hearing the word “moist” to the sound of fingernails scratching a chalkboard. This population often speculates that phonological properties of the word are the cause of their displeasure. One tantalizing possibility is that words like “moist” are aversive because speaking them engages facial muscles that correspond to expressions of disgust. However, three experiments suggest that semantic features of the word – namely, associations with disgusting bodily functions – underlie peoples’ unpleasant experience. This finding broadens our understanding of language and contributes to a growing literature on the cognitive processes relating to highly valenced and arousing words.

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