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A Word, Please: ‘Moist’ and other words people don’t like

A slice of honey ginger sponge cake
Readers don’t necessarily object to the word “moist” when referring to honey ginger sponge cake, but many are bothered by reference to a “moist” sponge, writes grammar expert June Casagrande.
(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
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Sometime around the early- to mid-2000s, countless thousands of people decided they hate the word “moist.” Some had probably hated it all along. Others were clearly jumping on a bandwagon — like middle school girls deciding some person or thing should be shunned. “Eww, Tammy’s so gross!”

By 2007, linguists were penning analyses of why people hate the word “moist” and why they don’t have the same reaction to “hoist” and “foist”: The answer, it seems, is that people associate “moist” with bodily fluids, much like the way those middle-school girls associated Tammy with the one time she had spinach in her teeth.

Interestingly, when someone is talking about cake, the word “moist” doesn’t elicit the same revulsion.

Respondents in a 1946 survey published in the 1977 “Book of Lists” didn’t include “moist” among the worst-sounding English words. Back then, people were cringing at cacophony, crunch, flatulent, gripe, jazz, phlegmatic, plump, plutocrat, sap and treachery. So tastes change, apparently.

I was curious whether our newfound hatred of “moist” was spilling over into the world of professional publishing, so I searched in Google’s Ngram Viewer, which shows how often words appear in published works over time. Turns out “moist” has been in steady decline for over a century but took a big dip around 2010. Even more telling: Also around 2010, the words “damp” and “wet” jumped in popularity, apparently serving as pinch-hitters (even though you could argue they’re just as icky).

It’s unclear whether writers are avoiding the word “moist” because they dislike it or because they know readers do, but either way there’s a lesson here: When writing, choose your words carefully.

Case in point: I always liked the word “impactful.” It’s efficient and clear — simpler than saying something “has an impact.” Then a reader teased me about using it. The gibe got to me. Now I shy away from using “impactful,” and I cringe when I see it in print or hear it spoken. I’m not proud that I was so easily prejudiced against “impactful,” but any writer who wants to keep me focused on their message instead of their word choice would be wise to avoid it.

You don’t have to accommodate every reader’s aversion to every potentially off-putting word. But you should keep the reader in the back of your mind at all times. If you’re writing crime fiction or horror and you want to elicit a visceral response, by all means use “moist.” But if you’re writing a memo to your staff about keeping the office kitchen clean, you might want to avoid talking about a “moist” sponge.

Though she doesn’t celebrate Festivus, grammar expert June Casagrande does have some bones to pick with certain writers.

Unlike “moist” and “impactful,” the most-hated words are despised not because people think they’re disgusting, but because people think they’re wrong.

“Irregardless” is a prime example. Ask 100 people what they think of this word and 99 will tell you “It’s not a word!” Not true. Even made-up words are words. What these folks mean is that it’s not a proper word or a correct word. They logically assume that, because “regardless” already says the same thing, adding “ir” renders it nonsensical. A fair point, but language doesn’t always evolve logically, which is why you’ll find “irregardless” in most dictionaries as a synonym of “regardless.”

“Orientate,” like “irregardless,” includes an unnecessary syllable. It means “orient,” as in to orient yourself to your surroundings. The only difference is that tacked on “ate.” For that reason, “orientate” is despised, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

“It is not uncommon for words in English to have variants which are slightly longer than they need to be,” Merriam-Webster dictionary editors write. “Some of them make people very angry (“irregardless,” “conversate,” “preventative”), while others (“commentator”) seem to elicit little more than a shrug.”

As a writer, you shouldn’t worry too much about whether commonly used words are wrong. But you should always consider whether you want to anger or disgust your readers.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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