Linguists: “Moist” makes women cringe

Ladies, what's with the lexical disgust over the M-word?

Topics: Broadsheet, Love and Sex,

Moist. Does it get your panties in a twist? Inspire a cornucopia of unpleasant feelings? Give you goose pimples? Does my very line of questioning strike you as repugnant?

As someone who has long enjoyed torturing my brother by describing chocolate cakes as deliciously moist and fudgy (another one of his retch-inducing words), I never considered that lexical disgust might divide along gender lines. I’d always imagined that it was an individual idiosyncrasy — the full manifestation of my brother’s highly developed disgust response. But according to the word-spotters at Language Log, not only is there a widespread aversion to the word “moist” (and a host of other nontaboo words like panties, cornucopia and goose pimples), but word aversion seems to be more prevalent among women.

The Language Log has compiled an impressive archive of the various online discussions and mentions of the anti-moist phenomenon, many of which question why women would be more likely to be grossed out by the notion of moistness. There’s even a Facebook club devoted to the idea. What does the aversion really mean? No doubt Freud would have had a field day with the idea of people — be they men or women — deeply and unconsciously repelled by the word’s association with female desire, fecundity and ripeness. Indeed, a lot of the words that gross people out seem to be ones that suggest women’s bodies. Add the word “panties” to the mix and we’re not talking about the unconscious so much as bad porn. But other words that are equally suggestive don’t set off alarm bells. Why moist and not wet?

One possibility: The word “moist” straddles the same cultural polarities of shame and openness that still haunt modern female sexuality. After all, moist is now mostly used with positive connotations to describe baked goods and soil, but it still harbors its less than appealing root meanings. First cited in the English language in 1374, the word came from the French word “moiste,” for damp, which came from the Latin words for moldy, slimy and musty.

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Last week the moist conversation took on a new dimension when Charles Doyle at the University of Georgia posted to an academic language list-serve that his use of the word in a Shakespeare class had prompted several of his female college students to inform him (in an amused, not outraged way) that the M-word was offensive to women. According to professor Doyle, the women offered no explanation for the word’s bad juju, but one male student suggested that it might have something to do with female sexual arousal. To which I offer the following comment: No, duh.

Since then some posts have suggested that the moist embargo is yet another feminist absurdity (a theory too absurd to dignify with a response). But maybe the college students were not talking about the word per se, but about the professor’s use of it. Doyle says he used the word to describe Egypt in “Antony and Cleopatra” — and the association with women’s sexual arousal “is not at all beside the point.” So are these women squeamish about Shakespeare’s (or Doyle’s) bawdy vision, or do they actually believe the word that has sold Betty Crocker cake mixes for decades is now an obscenity? Either way, it’s weird to imagine that in this era of happy-go-lucky explicitness, we could suddenly start getting offended in a college Shakespeare seminar and turning ordinary words into taboos. Is there a growing Victorianism lurking in our verbal closet? Or is it that since an open revulsion with the female body is no longer kosher, our disgust searches out substitute targets?

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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