Read With Caution: Contains Vocabulary Some May Find Repulsive

I am sure it comes as no surprise to anyone who reads this column, whether you are a regular or first-time reader, that I love words. Regular readers know that I have written innumerable columns about words and phrases, and new readers, I’m certain, just assume that someone who writes for a living must love words.

I have often wondered whether genetics played a role in my becoming a writer. When I entered college in 1975 I was absolutely certain that I would become a scientist of some sort or a mathematician. I loved all the sciences (with the exception of chemistry) and my first term I took a wonderful astronomy course that blended my love of science and math. The following term I took an interesting botany course and…I never took another science course in college.

Three years later I graduated with a history/English composition double major.

How did this happen you wonder? Well, that’s where the genetics I mentioned above comes into play. My father was a poet and English professor; my mother was a journalism major; my father’s mother founded the public library in Grays Lake, Ill.; my father’s father was the head printer for the Field Museum in Chicago for 37 years; my father’s father’s brother was a printer; my father’s mother’s father was a printer; and…you get the idea.

Thus, my theory that genetics played a role in my career path seems, at the very least, a reasonable supposition.

So now you are wondering where I am going with this column. After all, reading a biography of the Grutzmacher family is hardly a choice one makes for a summer pastime (if there is any time of the year that this seems a worthwhile choice).

The answer, folks, is that my daughter, Molly, who has all the aforementioned genes from my side of the family working toward guiding her into a career with words and the written language, suffers from word aversion.

Let me anticipate – and correct – your speculation that word aversion is something I just made up. In fact, this is a very real, lightly researched condition that afflicts countless individuals throughout the world.

Linguistics professor Max Liberman, from the University of Pennsylvania, described word aversion as “a feeling of intense, irrational distaste for the sound or sight of a particular word or phrase, not because its use is regarded as etymologically or logically or grammatically wrong, nor because it’s felt to be over-used or redundant or trendy or non-standard, but simply because the word itself somehow feels unpleasant or even disgusting.”

Another way to define the condition is to think of the reaction most individuals have to fingernails being dragged across a chalkboard: there isn’t any particular rational explanation for why we repulsed by the sound and cringe internally, but we do.

Those afflicted with word aversion experience much the same reaction when hearing or reading certain words and, needless to say, this is completely foreign to my brain’s mechanics.

In my daughter’s case, there are a whole variety of words and phrases that cause her to cringe. The most notable (and the only one I remember at the moment) is “moist towelette.”

If you don’t suffer from word aversion you are probably thinking that this is the stupidest thing you have ever heard of to this point in your life. However, a few years ago, the Huffington Post food section listed five alternative words to use (particularly in describing cakes) to the word “moist.” And in 2011, in a survey of 125 University of Mississippi students, “moist” was ranked as the ugliest word in the English language, ahead of such notables as phlegm, ooze, mucus, puke, scab and pus (all of which, interestingly, show up in surveys of words that repulse those afflicted with word aversion).

In other words (pardon the pun), “moist” seems to be the most common irritant to those suffering from word aversion. But determining why this is so becomes difficult. The word “ointment” is a common trigger, but I can find no reference to the word “oink” bothering anyone. So it isn’t just the “oi” that is the problem, unless the hard “k” at the end of “oink” somehow makes it more tolerable than “moist” or “ointment.”

Lest you think that all words that cause reactions involve squishy, slimy, disgusting words, or words related to the genital region (“panties” is bothersome to a great many people) consider the following list word aversion-ists compiled: luggage, pugilist, goose pimple, hardscrabble, squab.

Is there a common theme or sound, or combination of letters involved in this phenomenon? Well, linguists have yet to find any though those who have begun to study the problem acknowledge that the condition is still lightly understood and until a more complete list of irksome words is compiled the possibility of discovering a link remains remote.

This August, my daughter will marry a wonderful man, Phil Gallico, and if, at some point during the festivities, she becomes a little too warm and is glistening with perspiration I – being the caring father that I am – will offer her a “cool wipe” rather than a “moist towelette.” It seems the very least I can do…unless “wipe” is an aversion trigger. I better check.