Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Which Words Do You Love and Which Do You Hate?

Sometimes our perspective on language isn't exactly rational: we love some words and absolutely despise other ones. What inspires such deep feelings, and why does word hate often seem to run hotter than word love? In the case of words like impactful, discussed in yesterday's Red Pen Diaries, the bad vibes may arise because of an association with vacuous management-speak or other institutional jargon. But other times a word is disliked because it just sounds, well, icky. A look at some of the favorite and least favorite words selected by Visual Thesaurus subscribers offers some insight on verbal attractions and aversions.

As I explained in an article in yesterday's Albany Times Union, we can learn a lot from the words that subscribers to the Visual Thesaurus select as "favorite" and "least favorite" in their user profiles. First, let's accentuate the positive: the word selected most often as favorite is... love. This is followed by the similarly feel-good terms serendipity, Grace, and peace. It's interesting that serendipity ranks so highly, but its appeal is self-evident: it has a distinctive and engaging meaning ("good luck in making unexpected and fortunate discoveries"), and it's also fun to say. That winning combination of enjoyable sound and sense is identifiable in some other highly liked words: pulchritude, eclectic, Schadenfreude, perspicacious, mellifluous, syzygy, discombobulate, and lagniappe.

Such words might inspire warm feelings, but they don't hold a candle to the visceral reaction that many people have for certain disliked words. Among Visual Thesaurus 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 are your own personal "woody" and "tinny" words? Let us know in the comments below. And if you're an individual subscriber to the Visual Thesaurus, make sure you edit your profile (by clicking on your name in the top right corner of any page) to select your favorite and least favorite words. We'll continue to keep track of your lexical cheers and jeers.

[Update: Welcome, BoingBoing readers!]


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday May 19th 2009, 6:49 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
I have inexplicable hatred for the word AS when used as a synonym for SINCE.

"I could not go with them AS I had a doctor's appointment."

I can't explain my revulsion about that word. It always seems to me that anyone using the construction is being unforgivably careless. I have to remind myself that it is just me.

The word in my profile that I officially dislike is IRREGARDLESS. That one has been beaten to death.
Tuesday May 19th 2009, 8:07 AM
Comment by: Steven K. (Chicago, IL)
If I went the rest of my life without hearing the word "squat" I would one happy person

I don't know why but this word makes me cringe
Tuesday May 19th 2009, 11:34 AM
Comment by: Manuela F. (Washington, DC)
I have grown to despise the word "nurturing." It bothers me because it's so overused, especially in reference to women. I'm not a "nurturing" woman, I guess, and to me the word smacks of sterotyping and politically correct behavior. Argh! Even thinking of what it sounds like makes me irritable!

On the other hand, this past year I've become fond of "bloviate." It's become my word of the year. I had started to refer to a bragging coworker as a bloviator, and the word got stuck in my head and won't go away. It sounds like what it means.
Tuesday May 19th 2009, 11:37 AM
Comment by: William A.
Let's ban "vision" unless it refers to sight. Two days in solitary for anyone who chooses to use "utilize." For that matter, let's truncate all the "ize" non-words.
Tuesday May 19th 2009, 11:45 AM
Comment by: Daniel C. (Leicester United Kingdom)
The word bugging me at the moment is 'Gaussianity.' I've seen it used like this: ...deviation from Gaussianity... 'Deviation from Gaussian' works just fine thanks, and it is much easier to say.
Tuesday May 19th 2009, 11:54 AM
Comment by: Daniel C. (Leicester United Kingdom)
I also hate it when someone tries to change my -ise ending to -ize. 'ise' is a perfectly acceptable spelling where I'm from, in fact it is more common. Just because 'ize' has a connexion to American English, Americans seem to feel the need to insist that 'ise' needs to be corrected. The same thing applies to disc and disk. I should probably stop before I get into a rant about the IUPAC insisting that sulphur be spelt with an f (sulfur).
Tuesday May 19th 2009, 1:26 PM
Comment by: Raminta S. (Lawrence, KS)
Oh, how much would I give to see a study correlating personal characteristics with loved and hated words! I think gender alone could account for some of the "least favorite" words listed in the text.
Tuesday May 19th 2009, 2:56 PM
Comment by: Elissa S. (New York, NY)
I dislike the word nostril. However, I like the word booger.
Wednesday May 20th 2009, 1:47 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I think that the hate words I can think of right now are those that arouse intense feelings of mistrust. There are two, 'abortion' and 'bailout'.

As for words I love, gentle comes to mine, and father. These are words that have calmed me, the first the manner of my husband, and the second, obvious, a deep attachment to my late father.

I hope we can adjust these. It might make an interesting study of how our moods change with events, the time of postings and other thoughts that creep in at wee hours.

Did I spell creep correctly? Sigh.
Wednesday May 20th 2009, 8:58 AM
Comment by: sally O.
The word 'meal' makes me wince. Doubly so when paired with 'hot'. How else could one more successfully turn a 'a delicious dinner' into something totally unappetising in just two words? Add 'portion' and it just gets worse.

'A hot meal portion'

Ooohh eeeee. Yuk.
Wednesday May 20th 2009, 1:32 PM
Comment by: Thomas T. (Springboro, OH)
I hate 'orientate' and 'administrate'. Shouldn't these be, respectively, 'orient' and 'administer'.
Wednesday May 20th 2009, 2:15 PM
Comment by: Eileen M.
Zest is the most delightful word to me. It smacks of delicious fun.
Wednesday May 20th 2009, 6:26 PM
Comment by: brenda F. (minneapolis, MN)
I can't bear 'cake'. I find it truly unpleasant to speak aloud, getting all bunched up in the back of the throat like it does. Shame that such a nice thing has been burdened with a name unbecoming its festive character.
Thursday May 21st 2009, 2:27 AM
Comment by: Craig D.
'Succulent' ranks for me among the most disgusting of English words. There's just no way to use this word that doesn't conjure visions of my father using the word, most often to describe food and, most specifically, a shrimp dish he particularly likes. Just hearing the word spoken makes me a bit nauseated.
Thursday May 21st 2009, 7:39 AM
Comment by: Furrokh I. (Morganville, NJ)
I always liked the word "dekko". If you don't know what it means, give it a dekko in the thesaurus.
Thursday May 21st 2009, 11:46 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
My wife also has a negative reaction to "succulent." She hates the word. I don't understand the aversion. Nor with the word "moist," which seems perfectly fine to me. "Moist" must share some characteristic with "succulent" that turns people off.

I just loved the Monty Python speech when the character Dennis responds to King Arthur's assertion that Arthur had became King because the Lady of the Lake held out Excalibur to him:

"...if I went 'round saying I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away!"

Excellent! "Moistened" is the perfect word! Especially coming on the heels of the previous line, "... you can't expect to wield supreme executive power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!"

(I'm laughing out loud again.)
Thursday May 21st 2009, 7:48 PM
Comment by: Pamela B.
Have always loved the words "lambent" and "luminous." Both their sounds and meanings, almost like perfect small poems. When I was a child I used to say "whipple" all day after we had passed "Whipple Lake" while driving up north in Michigan.
Friday May 22nd 2009, 9:57 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
That was good, Pamela...!
Friday May 22nd 2009, 10:42 AM
Comment by: Elle
I truly dislike the over usage of "whatever"! My husband and I have 4 children in their twenties and 2 teenagers and we are incessantly pelted with that word. My animosity springs partially from their usage of "whatever" as a substitute for what basically amounts to "F--- you", but it's the laziness of thought that really irritates me.

Daniel- I can appreciate your frustration with our spelling differences. I read quite a bit of material that's been published in the UK and sometimes quite accidentally spell a word in the way it would be spelled in the UK. My friends think my education was for naught at those times, poor things.

Pamela- absolutely delightful! Thank you so much.
Friday May 22nd 2009, 11:34 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Like Elle, I mix spellings constantly! Part of this comes from having lived in Canada for more than 40 years, but with a US education. Part also comes from now having so many friends in the UK!

Some words, like ageing, just have to be spelled THAT way! I think it's the Brit way, rather than ours, but I've lost track completely!

Just be brave, Daniel. We will arrive at one spelling eventually. Give us a century or two.
Saturday May 23rd 2009, 4:47 PM
Comment by: Daniel C. (Leicester United Kingdom)
Jane,

civilisation
spread to all across the globe:
civilization.
Saturday May 23rd 2009, 7:12 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Very good! What I was wondering was this. With those 's' words, do you pronounce them with the 'zed' (another thing I had to learn when I moved here!) sound, or the 'es' sound?
Sunday May 24th 2009, 1:14 PM
Comment by: Daniel C. (Leicester United Kingdom)
'ise' has the same sound as 'ize.' I'm not quite sure how to put it in words but pronounce it like it's a z. So, 'ise' is not an 'ice' sound.
Sunday May 24th 2009, 1:16 PM
Comment by: Daniel C. (Leicester United Kingdom)
I'd also like to add that I really like the words 'perambulate' and 'perambulation'. I'm a sucker for the classics.
Sunday May 24th 2009, 5:34 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
I appreciate "perambulate" Daniel. Without it we wouldn't have the word "pram" -- and then Monte Python couldn't have written:

It's a busy life in Camelot
I have to push the pram a lot.

(Obviously, the word is used here because they couldn't think of one other way to make the rhyme.)
Tuesday May 26th 2009, 3:00 AM
Comment by: Julianne A.
"Amazing" just drives me nuts! It is so over used by everyone, everywhere. I don't think they really understand the meaning of the word; there can't be that many totally surprised people on this planet. Whatever. Agree on that one also.

Love 'delight' and wish I were more often 'delighted'. "Willow" is a soft melody to me.
Wednesday May 27th 2009, 2:57 AM
Comment by: Jennifer J. (Auburn, WA)
I've become irritated with the word "phenomenal". I have a friend that uses it to describe too many things. I can appreciate her enthusiasm. I just wish she could find new words to express it.
Wednesday June 3rd 2009, 11:14 AM
Comment by: Val (Hamburg, PA)
A favorite word of mine since youth is "dandelion." It's like Pam's perfect small poem - it's musical and bright as it's flower, yet carries a the notion of the "tooth of the lion," because of its leaf. I look forward to carpets of dandelions blooming after a harsh winter.

I had a Cuban Spanish teacher in HS who thought that one of the most melodious phrases in English is "cellar door" - and it is lovely.

I am with everyone who hates "whatever." Its pervasive use says something scary about our society.
Monday June 8th 2009, 10:28 AM
Comment by: Colin B.
I sit on the board of a not-for-profit, and we recently came across the word "undergirded" (meaning "supported by")in another organization's statement of principles. My only comment to my fellow board memebers was that I had never seen the word before, and never wanted to see it again.
Wednesday June 10th 2009, 7:39 PM
Comment by: Steven S. (Cambridge, MA)
I agree with Sally. "Meal" is a repulsive word. There's a banner hanging on a nearby church advertising a weekly "Women's Meal." Does it come in a bag?
Wednesday June 10th 2009, 9:26 PM
Comment by: Holly N. (Los Angeles, CA)
Using nouns as verbs is a horrible practice and grammatically reprehensible: I hate the words "journaling," "gifting," "re-gifting" and so on. Thanks to everyone who uses nouns and nouns, verbs and verbs.
Thursday June 11th 2009, 2:42 PM
Comment by: Melissa T. (Nashville, TN)
I was watching the movie Stranger Than Fiction this weekend and there is a scene where a literature professor asks an IRS agent about his favorite word and the agent responds, naturally, "integer". I do like integer better than number but in general want such terms used correctly and when number will do, perhaps it should. I am irritated by all those folks who must say "medication" and have allowed medicine, a fine word, to languish.

I like ineffable and grove and sentimental. I don't much like words with a squawk in them, like squalid.

My family used the word "peaked" pronounced in two syllables, to mean not feeling well, under the weather. I love that word and also the old-fashioned pronunciations of beloved and blessed. When my professor in divinity school told me I should shorten my pronunciation of blessed to one syllable sounding like "blest" I was sorely disappointed. Doesn't bless-ed sound much better?

The best phrase in our language: "post-season play" both for sound and for its delightful promise.
Friday October 9th 2009, 8:58 AM
Comment by: Paula E.
Verbiage. It tops all of the nasty words out there, including banal, orifice, brassiere, bladder and putrid. As a writer, I am especially repulsed by verbiage because, in my irrational but grammatically aware mind, it signifies word garbiage. (I spelled it wrong on purpose.) I credit my word aversion to James Whatshisname, whom I worked for at the tender age of 29. Now in my mid fifties, I have had 24 years to develop my repugnance, which is another one of those lip-curling and disgustingly cacophonous words.
Saturday October 10th 2009, 6:33 PM
Comment by: Mary Wells P.
"Veggies" does great disrespect to beautiful vegetables, and feels extremely dismissive, as if vegetables are always an afterthought. While I don't find "vegetables" such a wonderful word, it does convey a sense of belonging to an important realm, while "veggies" sounds like caricatures. Caricatures- another good word that looks like what it stands for!
Monday October 12th 2009, 10:27 PM
Comment by: Ellen L. (LOS ANGELES, CA)
Absolutely dislike .... "And I am like telling him that it's like..."

What's the matter with forming proper sentences ?

Being European and now living in Los Angeles I find this the most annoying word.
Tuesday December 8th 2009, 10:21 PM
Comment by: Nena D. (W Hartford, CT)
Here are some I like: swell, slippery slope, symphony -- must be the sibilant (another nice one) sounds they send forth. Also bayou, bailiwick, and brobdinagian which, truth be told, I've never had the opportunity (or is that the courage?)to use.

Re: awesome. Yes, overused, although not as much as in its heyday, about 15 years ago. When I hear it, I remember my 3-year-old son describing something as "toady awesome." So think about that funny, sweet (another favorite) phrase next time you hear the obnoxious adjective.
Wednesday October 13th 2010, 10:58 AM
Comment by: Theresa K.
I've loved the word halcyon ever since hearing it in an high school English class decades ago. It just makes me think of warm, peaceful summer days walking in the woods or at the beach. I often think of that English teacher, now long gone, who gave us ten vocabulary words a week. We were instructed to find them in our leisure reading, in newspapers, in magazines or wherever they popped up. I think that's where my love of words started. That assignment would be way too easy now with Google!
Wednesday July 27th 2011, 4:28 PM
Comment by: Nancy T. (Metuchen, NJ)
Bunion. It's bad enough to be afflicted with a bunion, but really, now, does the word have to be that ugly? It sounds as if it is the bunion bearer's fault -- which, indeed, it is not.

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