[SPAM:###] "moist" searches

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at STANFORD.EDU
Mon Aug 10 17:41:39 UTC 2009

first, the AHD4 Synonyms note under _wet_:

   _wet_, _damp_, _moist_, _dank_, _humid_ These adjectives mean
covered with or saturated with liquid. _Wet_ describes not only what
is covered or soaked (_a wet sponge_) but also what is not yet dry
(_wet paint_). _Damp_ and _moist_ both mean slightly wet, but _damp_
often implies an unpleasant clamminess: _a cold, damp cellar_; _a
moist breeze_.  _Dank_ emphasizes disagreeable, often unhealthful
wetness: _a dank cave_. _Humid_ refers to an unpleasantly high degree
of moisture in the atmosphere: _hot, humid_ weather.


Visual Thesaurus connects "moist" to "dampish" and "damp".

this is the vocabulary domain surrounding "moist".  already you can
see that different contexts are going to favor different choices.

in a 2007 google search, i found high numbers of hits for
   moist wipes (54,400 raw hits), moist towelette (38,800)
(these are, effectively, technical terms, but "moist" is pretty
clearly the best choice in the context), and very high numbers for
various natural phenomena:
   moist heat, moist soil, moist air (all over 400k raw hits)
here, "moist" competes with "damp" and "wet", but the choices convey
somewhat different nuances of meaning.  similarly for "moist X" for
various body parts, in particular
   moist skin (84,400), moist lips (63,100), moist eyes (40,600)
(different choices convey somewhat different nuances of meaning).

finally, there were huge numbers of hits for "moist X", where X is a
type of bread or cake; "moist cake" alone got 71,400 raw hits, "moist
chocolate cake" 58,700.  in this context, it seems to me that "moist"
is the *only* satisfactory choice.  ditto for some other foodstuffs:
   moist turkey (404k), moist chicken (262k), moist stuffing (179k).

so it's highly unlikely that "moist" is going to go away, whatever
feelings some people might have about the word; there are just too
many contexts in which it's useful.

some people who object to "moist" don't object to it across the board,
but many do.  for the latter, some (sexually tinged) uses of "moist"
seem to have contaminated, in the technical sense, other (originally
innocent) uses.  such people are then confronted with the question of
how to convey moistness in the originally innocent uses -- say, by
denying dryness (a tasty chocolate cake or roast turkey would then be
"not at all dry" rather than "moist").

this brings us back to "moist panties" and the like.  back in 2007 i
got only 32,300 raw ghits for "moist panties", which is small in
comparison to some of the counts above.  in fact, "wet" exceeded
"moist" in some sexual contexts by large factors:
   "wet panties" over "moist panties" by a ratio of 39:1;
   "wet pussy" over "moist pussy" by a ratio of 74:1 (!);
   "wet hole" over "moist hole" by a ratio of 19.5:1
(lots of these hits were from pornography).  so the "wetness of female
lust" (as Alison Murie just referred to it) is not the only factor
disfavoring "moist" and linking the word (in some people's minds) with
female sexuality and the disparagement of women.  the association is
not just with the concept, but with this specific word (since "wet"
seems not to have picked up comparable opprobrium).

back in 2007 i had a long e-mail correspondence with a reader on just
this point.  her claim was that "moist" had a (negative) connotation
that "wet" lacked.  at the time it seemed to me that saying this was
just re-stating the puzzle (of how "moist" developed some considerable
degree of opprobrium for some speakers) in other terms -- that it was
essentially circular.

not all of this is a puzzle.  it wouldn't take a large number of uses
of "moist" in sexual contexts for it to become associated (in some
people's minds) with sexual content (so that it could pick up a sexual
connotation for some people).  the question, however, is how "wet"
escaped this development.

my best idea on the subject is that it follows from two (related)
characteristics of these words.  the first is that "wet" is far the
most frequent item in the domain of wetness adjectives, so that
"moist" stands out in a way that "wet" does not; it is simply more
noticeable.  the other is that "wet" is the most general term in this
domain, so that again "moist" stands out (as more specialized) in a
way that "wet" does not.

note that the development of a negative connotation for "moist" is by
no means necessitated by the facts of english.  instead, the
development depends on individual people's experiences with the word;
on this story, there's a considerable component of chance in the
development (and then in the spread of the connotation to others).


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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