Ugly-sounding words can describe beautiful things

The meanings and negative associations of moist make it ugly, just as positive associations can make other words seem lovely.


People seem to dislike the sound of the word moist. It tops so many “Ugliest Words in the English Language” lists that psychologists at Oberlin College in Ohio and Trinity University in Texas decided to investigate. Their study participants tended to blame the word’s “phonological properties.” “It just has an ugly sound that makes whatever you’re talking about sound gross,” one person said. Foist, hoist, and rejoice, though, did not evoke negative responses, despite their similar sound patterns. Participants thought “moist cake” was just fine, too. It was only when they were cued to associate the word with disgust at bodily functions that they likened moist to “fingernails scratching a chalkboard.” 

The meanings and negative associations of moist make it ugly, just as positive associations can make mother into one of the most beautiful words in English. There are some words, though, that defy this pattern; (almost) everyone agrees they sound terrible, but they signify something lovely. Ironically, pulchritudinous means “beautiful,” though most people find the word anything but. It derives from the Latin pulcher (“beautiful,” “noble”), and seems to have first been used in English as a way to elevate one’s tone. One 14th-century text, for example, describes what poetry does as taking “the truth” and dressing it up in “oblique [indirect] figurations with pulchritude.” In other words, poetry makes things less clear but better sounding. 

When John Milton was looking for a synonym for “radiance” in his poem “Paradise Lost” (1667), he took effulgence from the Latin ex + fulgere (“to shine forth”). This word does a great job of conveying the radiant splendor of God. From a phonological standpoint, though, it leaves something to be desired. 

If you want another way to say “twilight,” you might go with crepuscular. Or you might not, unless you are a biologist or a poet trying to rhyme “muscular.” Crepuscular is the scientific term for animals, like cats, that are most active around dawn and dusk, as opposed to diurnal dogs or nocturnal raccoons. 

By some measures, these three words should sound good. They have more than three syllables, contain “l” sounds, and derive from “musical” Latin – factors that, as we discussed last week, tend to make words pleasant sounding. They seem to be semantically irreproachable, too. Beauty, splendid radiance, twilight – who could find fault with those?

Perhaps the cacophony of their consonant clusters (lchr, nc, cr) and their plosive sounds (“p” and “k”) outweigh the loveliness of their other features. Or maybe we appreciate their meanings but object to how they mark whatever discourse they appear in as self-consciously “educated.” If you think moist is bad, consider its near synonym, muculent.

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