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The Worst Word Ever

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You know what word I can't stand hearing? "Panties."

The word "panties" earns my vote for "worst word of all time." But there are plenty of people who find it perfectly acceptable.

And the most baffling thing: I can't fully explain why I dislike it so much. What did the word "panties" ever do to me?

I'm certainly not alone in my distaste at the word "panties." A woman on a parenting blog notes that "the only thing worse than the word 'panties' is an old man using the word 'panties.'"

I find this statement particularly interesting because I can empathize with it. "Panties" are so often used to discuss children's underwear, but there's also a definite sexual connotation to the word. Actress Christina Hendricks was quoted as saying, "'Panties' is a wonderful word. When did you stop saying 'panties'? It's sexy. It's girlie. It's naughty. Say it more."

It's certainly more sexual than the clinical-sounding "undergarments" or "underwear." I imagine most women have rarely heard the phrase "Take off your undergarments," at least not in this century. However, if any man ever told me to "take off my panties," I'd tell him to "get out of my house."

I think for me (and some other women) who find it hard to hear the word "panties," particularly from men, it has to do with a notion that these men are somehow (unintentionally) sexualizing little girls.

Daniel O'Brien, who has written several articles about word aversion, said he had never been bothered by "panties" until he received a flood of emails from readers, asking why he'd omitted the word from his roundups. He admitted, "I did realize that it's impossible to say it without sounding like either a child or a pedophile, (especially if you say it 100 times in an empty room)."

Now, before you start on your rave about how I'm beginning to spout some "crazy, feminist bullsh*t," let me make it clear: I am certainly not attempting to speak on behalf of womenkind. These are just my opinions of why I feel so much disgust at a seemingly random word.

And, it turns out, many of us are bothered by seemingly random words. Last year, we asked our readers to contribute the words they shuddered upon hearing, and they assailed "moist," "viscous," and "maggots," among others.

According to Ben Zimmer from Visual Thesaurus, their subscribers' least liked words are "hate," "no," "like," and "impossible." These four make some sense--"like" is an overused filler word, and the other three are negative.

Some of their other least-liked words, however, are less easily explained: "moist," "panties," "ointment," and "slacks."

As Zimmer points out, it seems odd that "moist" should get such a bad rap, when words that sound like it, "hoist" or "joist," are perfectly acceptable.

Our hatred towards particular words is partly visceral: how it sounds and feels in our mouth. But sometimes the problem seems much more psychological. Poet Paul Batchelor doesn't like the word "appall" because he "dislike[s] hearing the sound of [his] name in other words." Geraldine Monk says that the word "redacted" makes her "feel totally sick. It's such a brutish word...it prods at you in a nasty manner."

But why do some women, in particular, seem to hate words like "moist" and "panties" more than men do?

Carol Lloyd in Salon offers one possibility: "The word 'moist' straddles the same cultural polarities of shame and openness that still haunt modern female sexuality. After all, moist is now mostly used with positive connotations to describe baked goods and soil, but it still harbors its less than appealing root meanings. First cited in the English language in 1374, the word came from the French word 'moiste,' for damp, which came from the Latin words for moldy, slimy and musty."

Words like "moist" and "panties" don't carry heavy sexual associations, but rather, much subtler ones. So when they're used in everyday conversation, they have the strange ability to make women flinch.

My disgust at the word "panties" will probably never change. Luckily, unlike some other words, it has about a gazillion synonyms. So call them "underwear," "knickers," "undergarments," or what have you, but please refrain from using the word "panties!"

What word do you hate hearing? Let me know in the comments!

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