When talking about the most gross-sounding words, a few real winners instantly spring to mind. "Moist" almost always tops the list as the most uncomfortable word. Same goes for words like "mucus" and "cyst." But have you ever wondered why, exactly, these gross words make people squirm?
It has to do first, and perhaps most obviously, with their meaning and/or association. As associate editor Yaganah Shah wrote for HuffPost, "A recent study by Oberlin College and Trinity University researchers found that it’s not the sound of the words themselves that makes you cringe, it’s the association with bodily functions that grosses you out." If you think about what a "moist cyst" actually is, then that makes a lot of sense.
But others argue that the sound is important too. "The linguistic formula for a disgusting word is to make sure it contains phonetically abrasive letters like 'b,' 'g,' 'm,' 'u' and 'o,' which you’ll find to be common among the most hated," Nico Lang wrote for Thought Catalog. Mix those sounds with a word that has a gross association, and you've got the likes of "moist" and "mucus."
To figure out some other gag-worthy examples, I reached out to Lindsey Cummins, CEO of the social polling app Winq. She took the question to 5,000 voters, who came back with stomach-turning results. Below are some of them, as well as other hated words from around the web. Put down your lunch and take a peek.
Let's start the list with the obvious one. Despite the fact that it's often used to describe delicious cake, people still positively hate it. In fact, according to the Winq poll, nearly 60% of respondents chose it as the grossest word ever. If you think about its less-savory associations — think: clammy hands, rubbing against a sweaty stranger on the subway — and those choice letters, it does make a lot of sense.
Phlegm is not fun to say, which lends it perfectly to what's known as "word aversion." As Daniel O'Brien wrote for Cracked, word aversion is "a phenomenon that occurs when the physical act of saying a word makes you uncomfortable. Not based on what the word represents, but based on how it feels in your mouth." Phlegm. Just the sound of it it like hocking a loogie. Either way, it's gross.
"Ointment" definitely has a sort of wet, or dare I say moist, sound to it, which isn't pleasant. It also requires you to wrinkle your nose when saying it, according to O'Brien, which lessens its appeal even further. Add in a few nasty medical associations — you put ointment on oozing cuts, rashes, infections — and you've really got yourself a winner.
"Panties" is another word everyone hates, and perhaps for good reason. For women in particular, it's a lot more demeaning than "underpants" or "underwear." As writer Sarah Fentem says in The Atlantic, "I've heard several people refer to the word as 'infantilizing.' The addition of the suffix '-ies' (or in the singular form, '-y') converts the word into a diminutive." As a grownup lady, I prefer to use a grownup word for my undergarments, thank you very much.
"Lugubrious" is actually a fairly beautiful word meaning "looking or sounding sad or dismal," but it sounds like something that might bubble up from a horrible, murky pond. With that slimy "ooo" sound everyone hates, there's no wonder it's always on the list of most hated words.
"Curd" was another one high up on the Winq list. It definitely doesn't sound cute, but it does have a delightfully cheesy association. While that's often a great thing, something about the way "curd" sounds ruins any positive connotations.
A beautiful "rural" field is far from gross, but the word is hard to say. "It's just the way your mouth has to work in order to say it, it's part-word and part-frog-impression," O'Brien wrote in Cracked. Remember that Rural Juror bit from 30 Rock? The reason it's so funny in the first place is that it's just weird to float around in your mouth. Even though rural settings are preternaturally gorgeous, saying the word is kind of a lot.
There's something decidedly creepy about this word, but it's hard to figure out exactly what. "There has to be some awful ingredient in the 'dol' part, because every time I say this word now, I feel like I'm trying to swallow my own lips as punishment for giving the word access to the real world," O'Brien wrote in Cracked. And I'd have to agree.
Coming in seventh on the Winq list is "slurp," which definitely could sound less disgusting. I associate it with someone really giving it their all to get those last few drops of soda, or that last bit of soup from the bottom of the bowl, or that last chunk of milkshake. Plus, for some people, the physical sound of slurping can trigger misophonia, according to The New York Times. It's no wonder, then, that slurp is a hated word.
Following "slurp" is "mucus," which Winq users didn't like at all. It's definitely in the same linguistic vein as "phlegm" and "moist" with those "m" and long "ooo" sounds, not to mention the gross bodily function association. (It's unclear where "boogers," by contrast" ranks on the list of gross words.)
Topping O'Brien's list for Cracked is "pulp," which he called his "least favorite word in the history of words." I figure it's a good one to end this list, since it represents what ruins orange juice (imho), and it sounds gross. There's something about that "ulp" part that sounds a bit like you're burping. It just doesn't feel, or sound, nice to say.
And that's the recipe for a gross-sounding word. Grimy association, gross to say — that's really all it takes to make it on this list.
This post was originally published on February 15, 2017. It was updated on September 3, 2019.