Words We Love to Hate
After the American Dialect Society voted phablet as Least Likely to Succeed in its Word of the Year Voting, phablet has been getting enough attention that, however ironically, its success seems increasingly secure. Our own Ben Zimmer wrote about phablet for his Word Routes column, and provided expert testimony for an Atlantic Wire investigation into why this new word is so universally disliked. So what exactly is wrong with phablet? Is it that manly men quail before the idea of a "fabulous" personal accessory? Or that the word's "ph" sound too closely resembles phlegm and phat? Or does phablet simply carry the stink of a not-funny joke?In the wake of all this gleeful word-bashing, we turn to the universally appealing question of what makes for a bad word. In 2009, Zimmer examined words our users had volunteered as their favorites and least favorites, and came to some interesting conclusions about what goes into hating a word, including the headline that people hate the word "hate."
Among our subscribers, the word that appears most often as "least favorite" is hate — not surprising, since it's often paired with the overall favorite love. The runners-up are no, like, and impossible. No and impossible are words that anyone with a can-do spirit would want to avoid. Meanwhile, people who dislike like think it's, like, overused. Overuse is also to blame for the appearance of whatever, nice, and awesome among the least favorite words.
The word that comes next on the "least favorite" leaderboard is moist. Many people feel quite strongly about moist — there's even a Facebook group called "I HATE the word MOIST!" with more than 300 members. One Facebooker calls moist "possibly the worst word in the English dictionary," while another says, "I despise the sick, repugnant word!" It's hard to top the aversion felt for moist, but some other Visual Thesaurus "least favorites" can provoke similar reactions: panty/panties, vomit, ointment, and slacks.
It's difficult to find any unifying thread for these words that get people's goat. But much like the enjoyable words on the "favorites" list like serendipity and mellifluous, there's a certain sound/sense combination that sparks these word aversions. Why does moist merit a Facebook group of haters, while hoist and joist go unnnoticed? It's more than just the sound of the word: the disliked words tend to have some basic level of ickiness. As I told the Albany Times Union, this ickiness can have to do with slimy stuff, bodily discharge, or other things that people would prefer not to think about. Icky words include nostril, crud, pus, and pimple. Ointment and goiter share the "oi" sound with moist: there must be something about that diphthong that gets under people's skin.
These reactions are extremely variable — very often women react more negatively than men (as is the case for moist), and everyone seems to have his or her own idiosyncratic likes and dislikes. Kristi Gustafson of the Times Union is so annoyed by the word vigil that she has to turn down the volume on the television when the word comes up in the news. These deep-seated sentiments about words are very often inexplicable. The Monty Python troupe had fun with these seemingly arbitrary tastes in their sketch about lovely "woody" words and dreadful "tinny" words. (YouTube video here, transcript here.)
What about you? Are there words that, like the publishers of the Lake Superior State University's Banished Words List, you'd like to see disappear from the lexicon? Share them with us in a comment here — and be sure to let us know why!