When you poll a group of people on the “most disgusting words,” moist always wins in a landslide, the most-universally hated word in the English language. If you don’t hate that word, say “moist panties” and you will. “Moist” inherently makes the skin crawl because of it’s association both with our genital areas and our favorite desserts. You should not be able to describe that delicious German chocolate cake in the same way you do Nicolas Cage’s private parts. It’s just not part of God’s plan.
For a word to be truly objectionable, it shouldn’t just sound disgusting. The linguistic formula for a disgusting word is to make sure it contains phonetically abrasive letters like “b,” “g,” “m,” “u” and “o,” which you’ll find to be common among the most hated, but “bogus” doesn’t elicit the same response as “bulbous,” the sound of which makes you instantly queasy. When I took Spanish, “burbuja” (meaning “bubble”) was commonly cited as a favorite word amongst my classmates – because who doesn’t like bubbles?
Instead, to truly offend and revolt, it has to play on our deep-seated semiotic associations with meaning. It’s not just the word, but what it represents to us. When we hear “vomit,” we think not just of its unflattering construction but the very image it signifies. There are exceptions to the rule (“blog,” “lugubrious,” “slacks”), but for the most part, our revulsions come socio-culturally loaded. For further proof: Readers frequently write in that words like “liberal” or “conservative” disgust them, based on which team they bat for.
To compile a master list of the most hated words, I went through reader surveys of words that reportedly gross respondents out, from Slate to the Huffington Post, in order to bring together the worst of the worst. So if you ever want to say the grossest sentence in the English language, say: “While still in my panties, I vomited from my jowls a chunky curd of phlegm that was dripping with roaches, maggots and mucus and gurgled a moist egg yolk while I blogged about it.” I don’t know when that would come up, but there you are.
Readers, what words get under your skin? Sound off in the comments.