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 and Vocabulary.com 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 our subscribers 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 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 "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 a subscriber to the Visual Thesaurus or Vocabulary.com, 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 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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