10 most cringeworthy words

2 min read

Strange but true: When rearranged in certain ways, the otherwise innocuous 26 letters of the alphabet can cause a serious visceral reaction of disgust, something linguists have dubbed “word aversion.” If you’ve ever inwardly (or outwardly) cringed at words like moist, phlegm, or groin, you’re not alone. While our reaction to these words sometimes ties into the meaning, many people also react just to the sheer arrangement of letters and the sounds they produce.

Here’s a rundown of 10 of the most cringeworthy words – and why you might find them so painful to see, say, or hear.


There are 19,000 likes on a Facebook Page for ‘I HATE the word “moist,”’ a word meaning “slightly wet, damp or humid.” Linguist Jason Riggle, from the University of Chicago, has suggested words with sexual overtones like this often elicit the strongest negative reactions. A comic on The Oatmeal may have it right: Unless you’re talking about cake or towelettes, skip this shudder-inducing word.


Fashion comes and goes, and so do the words we use to describe clothes. Slacks are synonymous with pants and trousers, and yet somehow they immediately channel chilling visions of the darkest corners of Grandma’s wardrobe. How much do people hate slacks? A social media debate sparked by The New Yorker actually had “slacks” as the No. 1 response to a word people wish they could eliminate from the magazine.


As an example of an onomatopoeia, few things that plop are pleasant in life. From toilet humor to dropped pies to animal poop, plop is just a downer of a word.


The area between the abdomen and thigh on the body is a pretty intimate spot for most people. So if you have an unfortunate accident and injure your groin, it can certainly be a little embarrassing to utter the word out loud.


Even the manliest of men will flush pink if you asked him to throw some names out for women’s underwear. Also squirm-inducing? The even skimpier thong.


It only makes sense that a word that means to “physically explore something with the hands” is as uncomfortable sounding as its definition. Whether you’re being visited by a doctor, investigator, or alien, nobody wants to be probed.


Office workers will be cringing at this one. Once you hear the breakdown of cubicle as rhyming with pubes (another less than pleasant word) and popsicle, it’s an image you’ll never get out of your mind. Or your cubicle for that matter.


This word is almost as ugly as what it’s describing. An unattractive jumble of letters coupled with an almost onomatopoeic sound equals a particularly squeamish word for most people to say. And its cousin mucus isn’t far behind!


Lots of good things are actually crusty – like a loaf of French bread or a flaky pie. But it’s those bad connotations that tend to bubble to the surface when you hear this word, from skin maladies to scuzzy buildup that resists cleaning.


At one point in the movie Pitch Perfect, Rebel Wilson’s character Fat Amy comically calls out another character by noting, “Not a good enough reason to use the word penetrate.” This verb has some aggressively sexual tones that just don’t feel so good to say out loud, even when applied to totally legitimate use cases, like cyber security penetration testing. Did you cringe when you read that? Yup, so did we.

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