My Sunday Telegraph column: We poor unfortunates who suffer from word aversion aren’t just being snooty
Do you suffer from “word aversion”? Are there words that make you physically recoil, that have an almost nauseating effect on you? Mark Liberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, guessed in an interview with Slate magazine last week that perhaps 15 per cent of the population suffer from an aversion to one word or another. The one they lead with is “moist”; “crevice” and, oddly, “slacks” (as in the casual trouser) also get a mention.
I should confess: I am a member of that 15 per cent. But my fellow word-aversionists are expressing their disgust in the wrong direction. “Moist” is fine: a perfectly nice way of saying that something is slightly damp. “Slippery” is far nastier. “Cranny”, as in “nooks and crannies”, also makes my skin crawl; likewise “flange” and “spongy”.
These aversions are not the usual pet hates of language pedants, such as my own fury when someone says “I’m not adverse to that” when they mean “averse”, or “mischievious” for “mischievous”; while a colleague finds the teenage-girl sense of the word “random”, to mean “unexpected”, aggravating. And it’s not the nails-down-a-blackboard irritation of needless jargon or badly used slang (“touch base with” for “talk to”; “blinging” when employed by anyone over the age of 15). We poor unfortunates who suffer from word aversion aren’t being snooty: we genuinely find these words upsetting. “Squat”: that’s another one. And “plop”. “Community” turned the stomach of another colleague.
Why is it? In some cases it might be obvious: there are rude and/or unhygienic connotations of several of the words I’ve mentioned, and the way our minds work means that we unconsciously attribute the properties of a thing to the word we use to describe it. (Imagine eating off a plate with the word “faeces” written on it in large letters, and you’ll see what I mean.)
In other cases, though – “slacks”, or “community”, or “natty” and “nifty” (both of which are also on my personal list) – there’s no obvious rudeness: it’s something about the sound of the word, or some subtle link, or perhaps it’s just entirely arbitrary. Whatever’s going on, it’s nice to know that I don’t suffer alone.
The next question is whether there’s such a thing as “music aversion” – it can’t just be me who finds that, for example, Cecilia by Simon and Garfunkel leaves me feeling faintly queasy.
• After years of repeatedly being told I ought to, I’ve finally started reading Robert Skidelsky’s acclaimed biography of John Maynard Keynes. It’s a pain: even in the one-volume version, the book is the size of an inkjet printer, which does not make for easy reading-while-you-brush-your-teeth.
I’m only a few pages in at the moment, and J M Keynes himself is not even a twinkle in his father’s eye. But already it’s delightful, simply because of the elegant, intellectual love letters between Neville (the aforementioned father) and his fiancée, Florence Brown. For instance, the robust Florence has to reassure the chronically nervous Neville: “You talk as if any discovery I might make of shortcomings might possibly alter my love for you. Why, it wd only give me an extra reason for hoping that you wd not be too hard on mine.”
Admittedly, I have a personal stake in all of this: if you’ll forgive the name-dropping, Maynard was my great-great-uncle. But I find it extremely touching. And I’m envious: my own “love letters” to my wife-to-be were generally under 160 characters, delivered by text and said things like: “Do we need anything from Tesco? Love you xx”.
• Talking of my better half, she’s away in America at the moment, with work. Which is fine, except that I chose last week to fall ill. Usually the only redeeming feature of a nasty bug is that your spouse is forced into Full Mollycoddle Mode, bringing hot towels, hot Ribena and hot-water bottles whenever the invalid demands them. There is absolutely no fun at all in feverishly hallucinating on your own in the marital bed, periodically having to fetch your own Lemsips.