Certain words might make us shudder, wince, or even gag. Soft vowels roll into hard-edged consonants creating an earful of sound that make us cringe. More than the auditory sounds, the words can elicit strong physical and visual associations that make them especially off-putting. We feel ‘vomit.’ We hear ‘phlegm.’ We see ‘pus’ (ah, middle school). We see and feel ‘gelatinous’ in the tomato aspic on our grandmother’s Thanksgiving table. And don’t even get me started on moist. On a diet? Put a little sign in front of any tempting treat that reads ‘moist, and glistening with icing.’ I promise, you’ll have no trouble resisting.

If the expertise of the internet is to be believed, many of us English speakers share an aversion to similar words; the cultural roots of these words are worth examining. Notice how many of these words have to do with body parts, bodily functions, sex, or womanhood. Our Puritan aversions are writ large via the words that make most of us squirm.

Here’s the list:

  • Glisten

  • Panties

  • Moist

  • Curd

  • Pus

  • Jowl

  • Gelatinous

  • Pustule

  • Congeal

  • Phlegm

  • Bosom

  • Cataract

  • Doughy

  • Dingle

  • Areola

  • Quim

  • Coitus

  • Follicle

  • Seepage

One of the assignments I used to give students in order to help them solidify new vocabulary involved them writing a paragraph using each of the words. Always one to lead by example, I thought I’d set myself the same task. I gave myself permission to conjugate if necessary.

And yes, I’m blushing.

Absentmindedly, the king picked at his pus-filled follicle. Scratching it raw, he wiped the moist fluid on his rich pantaloons. Reaching for a slice of warm, yeasty bread, he spread it thickly with a layer of the best black caviar in the land. A moist curd tumbled out of his beard, down his pustuled jowl, landing just to the left of his areola. Squinting his one good eye, the other clouded by a pillowy cataract, the king rooted around and plucked the doughy gem from his bosom. As he held it before him, between his forefinger and thumb, it glistened in the torch light. Despite the fact that it might have lingered in his beard since breakfast (given its congealed consistency) he popped it into his mouth anyway. The seepage from its gelatinous center burst into his mouth and reminded him of that predictable result of coitus; something between quim and phlegm. Despite his high standing at court, his consumption of the beard dingle garnered nearly as many snickers from his courtiers as had the time he’d been found, passed out and rummy, in Queen Isabella’s panties.

What are those words that make you cringe? How many do we share in common? Post, tweet, or send me a smoke signal with your list of vile vocabulary.

And for those of more sensitive dispositions, the next post will address those lovely, melodious, delightful words that charm us every time.


The Words We Whisper

Whisper II

I stood in front of my restless students, patiently awaiting their attention. Excited, I smiled at each of them, eager to begin our unit on Gothic literature. This was the first day of my student teaching experience. I was simultaneously thrilled and terrified. I wore a smart, navy wool suit and my favorite pair of sensible flats. As the moments ticked by, I fixed my students with “The Look.” We all know “The Look” from having been students ourselves. It’s that pinched face one’s teacher makes when she has attempted to appear patient and yet she really has a rather full agenda and she’s painstakingly aware of the passing of each lost instructional moment into the ether of eternity.

I collected my thoughts into the present moment, clearing my throat. A hushed murmur rippled through the room. And yet, I heard a word, a whisper, bouncing across the room. I cocked my head, lilting my ear toward my students. I heard the word. I smiled. “Are you playing the penis game?” I asked loudly. “Because I just won.”

I think about this story in the context of my growing up experience. My family stems from hardy Scandinavian and English stock. Never before has such an inhibited strand of DNA collided to form a human more genetically predisposed to stuffing, to hiding, to whispering those words that aren’t used in “polite” company. Words like penis (Look at that—my computer didn’t explode as I typed those five little letters that, strung together, form one of the most oft used words on the planet).

In my house, there were always words we whispered. Words referring to bodily functions were uttered at such a low and breathy decibel that I’m not actually sure I really ever heard them at all. But there were other verbal transgressions that were not permitted the air necessary to give them volume. Words like cancer. Or alcoholic. Or period. AIDS was one in particular that was not uttered in our home until six years after my Uncle died from it. Words have power; but in not speaking them, in not giving breath, we hope to deflect their power away from us, into some other cosmos, where we are insulated, protected, safe.

As a recent college grad, I landed a job at an AIDS foundation called Cure AIDS Now! I found myself in many different classrooms throughout Miami-Dade county teaching HIV and AIDS education. I found myself fielding questions like, “If I have a friend who fisted a guy…could he have AIDS?” and “If someone has AIDS and they cut themselves while cooking for you, can you get AIDS?”

“How did I get here?” I wondered. How had I managed to shirk the whole of my DNA, packaged in the soundproofing of politeness, to stand in front of a classroom and use the words “dental dam”?

Truth matters. Your truth, my truth, the truth. Our collective truth as a species matters. The ugly truth, the whole story, the ‘warts and all’ version of the tale is honest, human, and important. Each and every one of us lives a life that cannot be denied. It cannot be whispered away. You have cancer. He has AIDS. I have anxiety. Every one of these blemishes, when revealed, makes us more real, more tangible, more honest with who we are and why we’re here to walk in tandem with each other. It’s all a part of the story. These bits and pieces connect our journeys, binding us in a shared, human experience.

Who are you? What are the words you whisper? What power do they hold over you? And how might you lessen their influence on your life by speaking them aloud?


Your turn.