Monday, March 29, 2010

Moist Cellar Doors

There is a linguistic phenomenon referred to as "word aversion" in which there are certain words in the English language that when read or heard provoke a tremendously negative reaction for people. Quite frequently, when the subject of word aversion comes up, the first word that comes to many a person's mind is "moist". Language Log has written about this topic numerous times and there is even a Facebook group called I HATE the word MOIST! whose description is "If the very word "moist" makes you cringe every time you hear it, this group is for you."

The reason I bring up this subject today is that I noticed something while taking a shower this morning. I am so accustomed to seeing the purple shampoo and conditioner bottles that I normally don't pay much attention to them; but for some reason I noticed the product name today - Aussie Moist. I guess Proctor and Gamble has not heard of "word aversion". I guess also, that I am not averse to the word "moist" because I purchased the product.

On the flip side of this phenomenon is a belief held by certain individuals that some words and phrases are more beautiful than others. In linguistics the study of the harmoniousness of words and phrases is called phonaesthetics and the most frequently mentioned example of a phonoaesthetically-pleasing phrase is "cellar door". In fact, a character in the movie Donnie Darko even referenced the loveliness of the words giving credit to a "famous linguist" for the idea. Though the writer/linguist J.R.R. Tolkien is often given this credit, Grant Barrett's On Language column in The New York Times, points out that the aesthetic properties of cellar door were mentioned as early as 1903 by Shakespeare scholar Cyrus Lauron Hooper in a book titled Gee-Boy.

Long story short, phonoaesthetically speaking cellar door could be considered the opposite of moist so I wonder what happens to people when they hear or read the phrase moist cellar door?

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