Gross Beyond Words

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An online language-learning company compiles a cringey lexicon

In 2010, a Google-Harvard study estimated that there were 1,022,000 words in the English language, and that thousands more would be added every year. No one can say for certain what the total word count is today, but it certainly constitutes a generous buffet for a novelist or a marketing writer to pick from. Oh, the glory of the English language! Words can be descriptive or evocative, literal or symbolic, mellifluous or unpronounceable, poetic or prosaic, contemporary or archaic.

They can also be just plain gross.

This year, the global language platform Preply gathered data from the voting site Ranker to learn what English speakers consider the language’s ten grossest-sounding words. “Pus” topped the list with 9,799 votes, followed by “phlegm” (8,984) and “seepage” (8,799). “Moist” (8,234), which in various studies over the last decade has consistently garnered top honors for hands-down ickiness, placed fourth.

To be clear, the Preply list isn’t about words that are merely overused, misused, prissily euphemistic or socially inappropriate. You won’t find “synergy,” “granular” or “irregardless” here. What we’re talking about is something much more visceral—a psycholinguistic concept known as logomisia or “word aversion.”

University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman defines word aversion as “a feeling of intense, irrational distaste for the sound or sight of a particular word or phrase, not because its use is regarded as etymologically or logically or grammatically wrong, nor because it’s felt to be redundant or trendy or non-standard, but simply because the word itself somehow feels unpleasant or even disgusting.”

These are words that make your skin crawl not because of what they mean, imply or remind you of, but because of what they are. “Mimi hated a lot of words,” writes Eric McKean in his 2011 novel, The Secret Lives of Dresses. “She didn’t like the word moist, even when it was about cake; a Duncan Hines commercial could make her gag.”

To be sure, there is a vast lexicon of hated words that didn’t make it to Preply’s top 10 list that nonetheless rank high among connoisseurs of cringe—like ointment, bulbous, congeal, crevice, slimey and smear. For the renowned food writer M.F.K. Fisher, one word stood out with special distastefulness.

“My own word aversion is … the verb to Drool…,” she wrote.  “Very nice people have told me, for a long time now, that some things they have read of mine … have made them drool …  “I … should be grateful, and even humble, that I have reminded people of what fun it is, vicariously or not, to eat/live. Instead I am revolted.”

A final thought: In the interest of decorum, we’ve referenced only four of the words on the Preply list. You can see the complete list here, where you’ll likely find your own least-favorite word. Or something close to it.