Putting “moist” on the menu

"Moist Chocolate Cake" from "Quinoa 365" cookbook, published in 2010. The cake is made with cooked quinoa, not flour.

Moist.

There, I said it. I’ve strategically avoided that word in my writing, because I’m well aware of how it makes people squirm. But I never gave much thought to why the word is so detested, a topic that’s become the focus of Paul Thibodeau’s scholarship. Thibodeau, an assistant professor of psychology at Oberlin College, is now exploring whether people are less willing to buy items in packages with the word “moist” on them, such as Betty Crocker’s Super Moist Cake Mix.

“Does this aversion have any meaningful impact on people’s daily lives?,” asks Thibodeau, who first approached the pop culture phenomenon as a way to engage undergraduates in research methods.

According to Thibodeau’s studies, 20 percent of people experience “word aversion” related to “moist,” meaning they’d just as soon listen to fingernails scratching across a chalkboard. Other words documented as provoking repulsion from a significant proportion of American English speakers include “crevice,” “slacks” and “luggage.”

Of the people who cringe at the m-word, a number of them report the problem is “it’s inherently unpleasant sounding.” But Thibodeau found there isn’t a similar aversion to near-rhyming words such as “rejoice,” “foist” and “hoist,” which also require speakers to flex the facial muscles that are activated when expressing disgust.

So he concluded that the issue more likely arises from the word’s meaning. He found that when the word is used to describe food, it doesn’t upset people the way it does when it’s used in the context of bodily functions.

Still, restaurateurs may want to wait on the results of Thibodeau’s current study before putting “moist” on their menus. That’s partly because people seem to like disliking “moist.”

“There’s not a lot of evidence that people want to get over it,” Thibodeau says of the displeasure. “There’s kind of this fraternal element to having that aversion.”