Are there words that sometimes lodge themselves in your brain? Earworms you desperately want rid of, so you never have to see, hear or feel their slimy presence again?
You’re not alone. Distaste for particular ugly words is so common, linguists even have a name for it: “word aversion.” According to US linguist, Mark Liberman, the concept is marked by irrational disdain for a word or phrase. Crucially, he says, this is “not because its use is regarded as etymologically or logically or grammatically wrong […] but simply because the word itself somehow feels unpleasant or even disgusting.”
Although we all have our idiosyncratic dislikes, we’ve pulled together a list of words guaranteed to make your skin crawl. Words that look or sound ugly. Words that have horrible meanings. Or words that simply have repulsive associations. Plucked from a range of sources including Reddit, Buzzfeed and The New Yorker, this is the ultimate collection of ugly words. Armor yourself.
No surprises here. “Moist” has frequented and — most importantly — topped several ugly word lists across the internet. But why are people so opposed? Researchers from Oberlin College in Ohio, and Trinity University in San Antonio, decided to find out. They discovered that over 20% of the population was averse to the word. But not because of its sound — instead, it was the association with bodily functions that made people run for the toilet. Gross.
We’ve got a double offender. “Phlegm,” perhaps best-known as the “viscid mucus secreted in abnormal quantity in the respiratory passages” (sorry), also consists of 5 consonants and 1 vowel. This gives it a kind of Scrabble-cheat-word aesthetic. Merely pronouncing the word somehow gives rise to its meaning, too.
A word with a romantic meaning (of, relating to, or resembling twilight) and a heinous sound. There are a few things that render “crepuscular” ugly. First is that succinct (but vile) invocation of bodily fluids in the central “pus.” Then there’s the clashing of hard and soft consonants. Finally, the combination of these in a clunky 4-syllable word. Let’s be honest, it sounds more like a spell from Harry Potter. Want your enemy to suffer from a face full of ooze? Point that wand and… “Crepuscular!”
To the naked eye, this ugly word doesn’t seem very aesthetically offensive. It’s almost rather charming. However, speaking it aloud is another thing. Once you repeat that sharp –nt you sound flustered, hot, red, tired, prissy, and… OK, we could go on. But frankly, that’s enough to secure it a spot on our list.
Ah, the catfish of the English language. “Pulchritude” means “physical comeliness.” In other words: beauty. Which is a shame, because it sounds like some kind of fertilizer to put on your saplings. While the word has been used heavy-handedly since the 1400s (a descendent of the Latin pulcher, meaning “beautiful”), today, you can easily imagine it being used with a pompous grimace.
We have a soft spot for “fecund.” Maybe this is because of its cathartic meaning (fruitful in offspring or vegetation) and its association with spring. However, while “fecund” promises the world, it zaps the life out of you with its dominating, fierce and abrupt finality. It could almost be a swear word.
Oh “puce,” you dark red you. Just a color doing its bit to brighten the world. An apparent offender of sound and look (but mostly sound), the pu– is enough to draw both figurative and literal comparisons to a good old spit. This is only compounded by the creepy hissing –ce. Nasty.
It must be the T following an unfortunate unc– that trips us up on “unctuous.” An adjective meaning “smug and false earnestness or spirituality,” or simply, “fatty and oily,” the word owes at least some of its ugliness to its meaning. Suddenly feeling greasy? Time to wash this one down the drain.
It may distress some people that we even recognize this as a word. However, since it’s been entered in more than one dictionary, we’re going to air it anyway. “Amazeballs” allegedly entered the popular lexicon in 2003, when three women working at a magazine thought it would be a laugh to add “balls” to the ends of words. Cue “amazeballs.” What followed was a fetch-esque commitment from gossip columnist Perez Hilton, whose audience desperately implored him to “stop trying to make ‘amazeballs’ happen.” Alas, he sort of succeeded. In 2012, it peaked with an honor from the dictionary of the Most Annoying Words in the English Language. The apparent definition? An exclamation inviting someone to hit you. Case closed.
Finally, let’s cleanse our palate with the most beautiful phrase in the English language. If Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien says it, then it must be true. Say it with us now: “cellar door.”