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Talking About Word Aversion on TV

Language Log has devoted occasional posts to word aversion since Mark Liberman first discussed it in 2007. The New Yorker took it up in April 2012, and the Huffington Post did likewise that December (though neither used the term “word aversion”). Slate magazine followed in April 2013, and then various British newspapers; and now I’ve been asked to discuss the topic on a BBC early-evening magazine-style TV program, The One Show.

You might think it’s a big strike against me that I’ve never researched word aversion. But almost nobody has, so I’m level-pegging with the rest of the world’s cognitive and linguistic scientists. (One modest exception: This 2014 paper investigates aversive reactions to moist, finding a correlation with, inter alia, neuroticism.)

Why go on TV to address a topic on which there is hardly anything to say? Because (as I remarked the other day) communicating with the public is part of a professor’s job description. British universities and grant agencies classify it under knowledge exchange–an important faculty responsibility.

So I’m going to Bradford to videotape a conversation about word aversion with the comedian and impressionist Alistair McGowan. I have been imagining how it might go, visualizing myself as fluent, lucid, masterful:

McGowan: Geoff Pullum is professor of general linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. Geoff, what is word aversion and what explains it?
Pullum: Well, Alistair, it’s different from word taboo, or irritation at incorrect use, or annoyance at trendiness. We’re talking about involuntary visceral loathing. Many people, for example, feel that moist, the word itself, is revolting.
Scientific interest in this topic is very recent: I know of no use of the term “word aversion” before a 2006 blog post in which the Texan artist Lisa Eisenbrey admitted hating the word hardscrabble.

What are the candidate explanations? First, phonology: The words just sound ugly. But if that’s it, why are similar-sounding words not similarly hated? No one gags at rejoiced, though it rhymes with moist.

Second, semantics: the concept named rather than the sound of the name. But haters of moist don’t react in the same way to near synonyms like damp, wet, dewy, soggy, humid, or hydrated. Why not?

A third possibility is psychological associations. Words like vomit and phlegm call up memories of unpleasant substances or experiences. However, relatively few widely hated words refer to icky substances. And fully half the occurrences of moist are in thoroughly positive contexts like cookery (rich, moist cake) or gardening (moist soil or climate).

There’s no one-size-fits-all explanation.

Notice that evolution is surely not implicated. Arachnophobia is grounded in natural selection: Some spiders can kill you, so it’s advantageous for humans to have a built-in horror of them (even if it’s almost pathological in some people). But you don’t enhance your survival probability by hating panties or bulbous or squab.

Besides, words have very short life spans: 700 years ago (an eye-blink in biological terms) English didn’t have the word moist, because it hadn’t been borrowed from French yet.

In short, Alistair, word aversion is something of a scientific mystery. Idiosyncratic interactions of phonology, semantics, and association may be involved. We need more research.

 

That’s how I like to imagine it going: transdisciplinary wisdom from a smooth, highly skilled, professional TV talking head. However, in anticipatory nightmares in the small hours of the morning, my knowledge exchange venture sometimes doesn’t go so well …

McGowan: With common-sense questions like this it’s always fun to see what the eggheads say, and we have one here: Professor Pullman, from Edinburgh University.
Pullum: Pullum.
McGowan: Pull what?
Pullum: My name’s Pullum.
McGowan: Oh! I see! Pullman is one of the words you’re averse to! Hahaha!
Pullum: Uh, no, it’s just that …
McGowan: Tell us, Professor Plum: Why do you hate words like moist, pugilist, and panties?
Pullum: I don’t, really … I, umm …
McGowan: Crud and toe jam are just fine with you, are they?
Pullum: Well, I wouldn’t exactly say …
McGowan: What words do people hate up there in Scotland? The same as here in England? Does anyone hate the word haggis?
Pullum: I don’t know whether… uh …
McGowan: So people are just fine with buttocks and creamy north of the border, are they? Of course, they’d have to be OK with moist: Rains all the time, doesn’t it? Haha!
Pullum: The … It doesn’t always …
McGowan: Linguistic science doesn’t really have any answers, does it?
Pullum: Uh, we …
McGowan: Well, there it is: Science lets us down; Professor Pullman doesn’t actually know why people hate certain words. But here’s a few nasty words to test your reactions: armpit; brainfart; chunks; corpulent; earworm; fecund; hubby; pus; tissue. … Yuck! Feeling bad? I’m Alistair McGowan in Bradford.
Studio host: Thanks, Alistair! Fascinating. Next up on The One Show: The family who took their pet rabbit on a flight to Australia!
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