On ‘Moist’

I like the word ‘moist.’  Or, anyway, it doesn’t revolt me.  At its very utterance I’m not sent into spasms of abject revulsion.  This, it turns out, is not a unanimous condition.  Slate recently published this article on the—apparently very common—visceral hatred of the word moist.

To be fair, I know several people with this problem, but until now I thought their condition was merely symptomatic of their idiosyncratic and deep-seated psychological issues, while in fact it’s indicative of a general and garden-variety neurosis.  Of course, this is just my unscientific diagnosis of all the people out there who start to retch whenever someone describes a really excellent piece of cake. The article, sadly, takes a somewhat less judgmental stance and suggests that the aversion to moistness is sonic rather than connotative.  I.E. “Not [a reaction] to the things that they refer to, but to the word itself…The feelings involved seem to be something like disgust.” From a writer’s perspective, this is a hard case to make.  How do we separate a word’s effect from its meaning?  Connotation from sound? I guess you’d have to test it by yelling at non-English speakers.  In the meantime, trundle in the semioticians and cue Robert Hass’s poem “Meditation at Lagunitas.”

Anyway, the recent process of editing my novel, Horse Latitudes, has made me dimly and begrudgingly—in many ways adverbially—aware of the notion of a reader who will, I’m told, demand pleasure from me.  And apparently many of these readers do not find sudden experiences of abjection pleasurable.  (Or so they claim).*  Well, I’ve checked my novel and I’m happy to report that in its 112,00 words, moist and its variants only appear three times—and only once as an adjective. (After a character has crawled through a brothel tunnel, thrown himself into a rank Mexican fountain, and then sort of dried off—which is hard to do considering how humid, how damp, how generally moist the air can be in a Mexican border town). At another point, a character’s shirt does moisten with breast milk and that character is a sort of Virgin Mary/Mayan Suicide Goddess/Parrot hybrid with a feathered crest, coral rosary,  macaw’s beak, and moistened shirt—so if it’s the moist part of that sentence that you’re having trouble with, I think you’re probably a clinical case. On the other hand, if you feel as strongly about the word ‘blue’ as I do—you’re in luck. ‘Blue’ appears roughly 109,000 times.

Admittedly, there aren’t any words I inherently don’t like, but the opposite is definitely true.  Plenty of words give me visceral pleasure for reasons that seem almost entirely sonic.  I think Donald Hall has referred to this as ‘mouth-pleasure’ which might not be the most dulcet phrase, but gets the experience about right.  It’s good to chew on pendant, cerulean, gloam, billow—though hard, at least for the middle two, to actually work them into my writing unless I’m writing about mages, which I’m not.  And imagine stuffing them all into the same sentence?  “In the low gloaming the pendant moon cast the last billowing clouds in a moist cerulean.” What possible sentence could precede or follow that? (And let’s be honest: that sentence is loathsome long before moist slithers in). Those words are, in many cases, so lyrically oversaturated as to be stylistically terminal.  But that’s for another post, I guess.

*Before you start quoting Kristeva at me, I’ll fire her off at you: “If the object, however, through its opposition, settles within me the fragile texture of a desire for meaning, which, as a matter of fact, makes me ceaselessly and infinitely homologous to it, what is abject, on the contrary, the jettisoned object, is radically excluded and draws me toward the place where meaning collapses.”  I think I might, inadvertently, have some paragraphs like that.

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