Sometimes when I’m waiting for an appointment, trying to waste five minutes or attempting to annoy my friends and family, I come up with the most gross-sounding sentences that I can possibly think up. I’ve even fantasized of writing the world’s most disgusting novel — not using my literary abilities to move people to tears or laughter, but to nausea. It’s fascinating to me that people can have such strong visceral reactions to something so abstract as a word.
Linguists have attempted to pin down what it is that makes certain words sound so unappealing to us. Aside from the obvious semantic associations between these words (that is, what a word refers to), there are theories of certain phonological reasons behind these disgust reactions (the combination of sounds in a word), although there hasn’t been enough research on this to corroborate any of these theories.
Some examples of words I find detestable are moist (the classic), oozing, soggy, ointment, crusty, pimple, chunky, mucus, fluids, secretion, bulbous and pulpy. There is definitely a theme of slimy wetness that would probably show up in a medical or disease-related context, which I assume plays a big part in the disgust these words cause many people. Removed from their contexts, some of these words could inspire more neutral feelings. For example, a moist cake sounds fairly innocent while moist sac of fluids sounds vile. Likewise, a word such as flaky sounds appetizing if used to describe a pastry, but nasty if used to describe skin.
One particularly interesting hypothesis that has yet to be studied is that the facial movements we make in producing a word such as moist mimic the same facial expressions we make when we feel disgust — referred to as the facial feedback hypothesis. Knowing what exactly it is about a word that makes us gag would give us the ability to create new disgusting words, which I for one would be excited about.
Along with the ever-expanding list I keep of grotesque words, I also keep a list of words that sound pleasant to me, such as opalescent, labyrinth, jewel, luminescence and cherubic. There seem to be definite semantic and phonological differences between these and the gross words that were listed before. To me, a beautiful word sounds smooth, soft, fluttering and whispery. A gross word sounds rough, gurgly, wet and rubbery. When these aesthetic qualities are combined with a referent that appears similar to the way it sounds, we seem to wind up with a word which has a lot of potential to sound either repulsive or pleasing.
Here’s a teaser for my eventual novel: “Soggy maggots covered in pus oozed out of the chunky fudge secreting from the crusty pimple on her scalp as she squirted ointment onto the bulbous mucus-filled sac on her uvula.”