My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Saturday, February 17, 2018

I Really Really Really Hate That Word! (Mailbox)

If only I could think of a word for this
really wet, damp, humid mailbox.
I hate this word!  You? 

[C.N. Some words people really, really don't like.]

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer a couple a week.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I will...make every effort to be kind if you don't send me hate mail.]   

Rebecca asks: 

The comments for the 'saunter' post reminded me that I have a long unanswered question: We all have favorite words and phrases. These favorites, for the most part, are dynamic and change over time. But there is a word I dislike. I genuinely dislike the word 'strive'. It makes my brain itchy. If Strive were a person I'd warn my neighbors to be wary of it. I've felt this enmity for almost 20 years now. Do you have a word like this- a word you genuinely dislike and maybe will always dislike?

My reply:

[I added the link to the above question.]

You know it's going to take, like, every ounce of willpower I have not to fill this with a ridiculous number of uh....the word that is a synonym for struggle into this answer, right? But I will....erm....make every effort to do so.

Unfortunately someone out there didn't, uh, try hard to come up with any particularly latin sounding or clever portmanteau for this concept. It's just called "word aversion." (We should...hnnng...jockey to come up with a better term.) The most common one you hear these days is probably the word moist. The words panties and crevice seem to come up a lot too. I have a friend (who, if they're reading, should skip to the next paragraph) who simply can't handle the word yum or nom. It will absolutely upset them and they kind of ask everyone around them on Facebook to...uh...endeavor to leave them off of posts if they're going to use those words.

Linguists have...erm....strained to figure out why this physiological reaction happens with some people. It goes beyond people who are annoyed by the overuse of "like" or the descriptive use of decimate, literary, or miracle to describe a pedestrian childbirth. Most people confuse this with their prescriptive pet peeves and will describe something they are just really annoyed by, but it's actually closer to acute misophonia. It's an actual visceral, physiological reaction to the word itself that exists almost no matter how hard folks....labor to be okay with the word. In some cases it can make folks actually nauseated.

Most people think they've got word aversion if they're just cranky about misuse of literally, but that's really mostly them being cantankerous and irascible about prescriptive grammar.

One thing they really have to, um, bend over backwards to compensate for is the "downhill snowball" effect of people's learned distaste. For example, with so many mainstream examples of word aversion to the word moist some people dislike the word simply because they've been culturally trained to. It's the en vogue word that many shows and characters love to hate.

It's actually a pretty fascinating. The word seems intractably tethered in some minds to the concept it represents, which is where the true revulsion lies. Words that only have one letter changed, rhyme, or contain the offensive word in larger words often cause no reaction, and–this is where it gets really neat–people who study words and/or language often have no word aversions because they understand how arbitrarily words are linked with the concepts they represent. And people who are bilingual or multilingual almost NEVER have word aversions because they understand this arbitrariness at an even more fundamental level. So if you're...um...making every effort to overcome the brain itchy reaction, Rebecca, it might help to get a degree in linguistics and learn a couple of languages. That doesn't seem like an overreaction, does it?

In the meantime, I...do my utmost not to use those words around the people in question, but sometimes running a blog means that I....um....toil in vain. Personally I don't have any words that really bother me, although I am often slightly annoyed by the prissy onomatopoeia in the word "tinkle" when used to talk about peeing rather than delicate glass bumping noises. This may also have to do with an alcoholic grandmother who started to use the word excessively (almost gleefully) after her third sherry and a Stephen King short story where one of the characters also overuses the word to the main character's revulsion.

But really I just assay to remember that we all have different foibles when it comes to language. What about everyone reading? Any words you viscerally can't stand?


  1. My word aversions are usually linked to context, specifically sex scenes, since I read a lot of romance novels and erotic fiction. "Belly" and "tummy" have no place in sex scenes, and there is a particular word for female genitalia which can also refer to a feline that is just really awkward and makes the scene more vulgar than erotic. (I'm both bilingual and a student of linguistics, if that matters for your data gathering purposes.)

  2. I have a new one: slope style.
    It's been all I can do not to throw my phone through the TV every day of these Olympic games.

  3. Thank you for addressing my question. Your answer was informative and entertaining.
    It's true that I'm not bilingual, tho I can get by on the casual Spanish spoken locally and I grew up in a bi lingual(German) family.
    Your 'near misses' with offending word were clever and chuckle worthy.
    The last few years my internal voice reacts to that ridiculous word with the Yoda influenced response "Do it or don't do it. There is no strive, only do or do not."
    Its a terrible word that simply means "I SHOULD get this right, but I'm not going to, but I get to say I tried."
    And now my inner writer is ickified.
    Again, thank you
    ~The Rebecca in Question

  4. "Poop" and any other baby talk emerging from adult mouths.

  5. I'm shuddering even as I write this - tasty.

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  7. This made me think of the Monty Python sketch "woody and tinny words". Apologies if it's true what some folk say that one has to be British to find this kind of thing funny: