Another week, another class of Introduction to Word Tasting. I began by striding up to the board and writing moist.
I was not disappointed at the response; I had been prepared for it by reports from others.
“That word is offensive to women,” said one of the students before I could even turn around. On turning, I found that it was Kayley. Several other female faces in the classroom wore expressions of mild or severe distaste. None of the guys seemed discomfited, except for Rupert, who seemed ready to flinch – but, then, he usually did.
“Why?” I asked her.
“Well, everyone knows it is.” Some of the other females present nodded.
“I didn’t say ‘Is it?'” I said. “I said, ‘Why?'”
Anna, who is not subject to discomfiture (she’s a carrier), volunteered, “Moist panties!”
“Wait,” said Brian, turning, “do you find wet offensive too?”
“Um, no, it’s not nasty like moist,” said Kayley.
“Uncomfortable moisture,” Anna added. “Feminine products.”
“How about dry?” I asked. “How about muffin? If I say we’re in a tight spot, or a word can be loosely defined, is it offensive? How do we choose which ones are tainted by association? And is this word really tainted? You know, Duncan Hines advertises its cake mixes as ‘So moist. So delicious. And so much more.’ And I really think they’re marketing to women.”
“Duncan,” another one of the females – Jenna – snorted. “Clueless male.”
“Duncan Hines is a brand of Pinnacle Foods,” I said, “which is run by women as well as men. The person named Duncan Hines died more than 60 years ago. And if we’re talking about clues, I’m still looking for evidence that you have a clear sense of why you should be offended by moist.”
“Well, if it’s not obvious to you…” Jenna said, waving her hand.
“That’s a non-answer,” I said. “But not to worry: even if you’re unwilling or unable to articulate it, that’s why we’re here. Words have overtones; words have aesthetics. And people spread ideas about words. If nice words like picnic can be poisoned by false stories, certainly a word like moist can be poisoned by groupthink. Exactly when does a given connotation or collocation or other echo come to dominate a word? Sometimes things just catch on. There are Facebook groups dedicated to hating the word moist.” I pulled a piece of paper out of my pocket. “Not so long ago, the satirical website The Onion posted the following: ‘CORRECTIONS: After receiving fewer e-mail complaints than usual, it occurred to us that we have failed to incorporate the word “moist” into any of our recent articles. The Onion regrets missing the opportunity to offend its fragile readers’ delicate sensibilities. Moist.'”
“It’s come to be an ‘everybody knows’ thing,” Brian observed. “Except that not everybody knows.”
“And, indeed,” I said, “common agreement is what gives words their power. For instance, we can manage to use Latin-derived words for some body parts and functions without giving offense, but the Anglo-Saxon equivalents are considered very vulgar. Connotation undoubtedly involves groupthink. But again, why moist?”
“Well, because of what it goes with,” Kayley said.
I looked at further notes on the paper. “Air, soil, warm, eyes, keep, cool, tender, heat, skin, dark, cake…” I looked up. “Those are top collocations according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English.”
Rupert raised his hand. “Toilet.” He almost smiled, remembering how Eleanor, our resident flutterbudget, had been driven into retreat by that word. “It sounds like toilet.”
“Oyster!” Anna exclaimed. “Mmmm… moist oyster!” Kayley turned and looked at her with a face that said “You’re creepy.”
“The ois have it,” I said. “Especially when followed by that wet-sounding s. I think it’s a real factor.”
A hand from the side of the classroom. “Yes, Dawn,” I said.
“I don’t find it offensive,” Dawn said.
“Neither does my wife,” I said. “And there we have the other side of it: there may be a groupthink that dogpiles on moist –”
I winced, because I know what Anna was about to shout, and she did not disappoint: “Moist dog piles!”
I continued. “But it’s an in-group thing. Certainly there is some cultural and perhaps physical basis that leads some people to dislike it – probably a prurience about certain bodily features and functions, maybe a recollection of unpleasant sensations. But distaste and offense are different things. I dislike the word onus but I’m not offended by it. Moist is only offensive to those who decide they want to be offended by it. Being offended, of course, gives a person power in our society – control over others. That’s one motivation for this kind of groupthink.”
Dawn’s hand again. “So where does it come from?”
“The groupthink?” I asked.
“No, sorry, the word. The… etymology.”
“Oh!” I said. “I’m glad you asked. It comes most immediately from French, but the trail back from that is unclear, though it certainly goes to Latin. It’s thought that it’s a blend of mustum – ‘unfermented grape juice’ – and mucidus, which gives us the modern English word mucid.”
Brian’s face now took on a tinge of distaste. “Please tell me that doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means.”
I made a “sorry, but” shake of the head. “It’s an adjective relating to mucus. It can also mean ‘mouldy’ or ‘slimy’.”
Three or four voices declared, “Yuck!”
Anna’s face lit up. But before she could oblige with another interjection, Kayley turned to her, glaring, and said, “Oh, dry up!”