Strange News
4:35 pm
Thu April 26, 2012

'Slacks,' 'Moist,' 'Dude': The Worst Words Ever?

Originally published on Fri April 27, 2012 2:04 pm

If you could eliminate a single word from the English language — just zap it, nuke it, prevent it from ever being used again — what would it be?

That's the question Ben Greenman of The New Yorker put to its readers last week. Greenman tells Melissa Block, host of All Things Considered, that the response was awesome. "Awesome," by the way, was chosen by many readers for elimination. "People hated it," Greenman says.

The contest started, he jokes, when the magazine's staff "counted all the words in the language and we found that there was one too many."

To collect the worst of the worst, they reached out for nominations via Twitter. Many of the words readers submitted are popular ones, including quite a few mainstays in the teenage vernacular.

"We did detect some reverse-ageism," he says. "People didn't like 'like' used as a sort of stopgap. People didn't like 'dude.' "

Other popular submissions were so-called ugly words, such as "phlegm" and "moist."

"People hate the word 'moist,' " he says. "Without the word, it would leave bakers, meteorologists and amateur pornographers lacking for what to do. I think it's the texture of the word."

When it came to making the final selection, Greenman says the public was out.

"It wasn't ever intended to be a popular vote. We were taking nominations after which we would go into the smoky backroom and pick a winner."

So what does The New Yorker consider to be the worst word in the English language?

"Slacks."

"The more that word stayed on the table, the more preposterous it seemed because there are lots of other words for it," he says. "It sort of, in our mind, stuck in time. Maybe '78, '79."

Like "moist," Greeman says "slacks" has a bad texture.

"People said it felt like rubbing the palm of their hand over polyester, to say that word out loud," he says.

So what happens now? Nothing, really. Greenman says someone from the magazine's copy department will write "slacks" down on a piece of paper, crumple it up and throw it away as a "sort of ceremonial sacrifice."

Next week, he says, they might eliminate a number.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

If you could eliminate a single word from the English language - just zap it, nuke it, prevent it from ever being used again - what would it be? That's the question that Ben Greenman of The New Yorker put to readers last week in the Culture Desk blog and, wow, the response was awesome.

And, then, that word that I just use, awesome, was a slated by, I gather, a bunch of readers for elimination.

BEN GREENMAN: Yeah, people hated it. And you should be ashamed that you just used it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: I'm so sorry.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: I am.

GREENMAN: OK. I'm sure many words that were marked for death will come up again during our conversation, 'cause many were very popular words.

BLOCK: And would a lot of them fall into that category of maybe things that teens tend to say a lot of?

GREENMAN: Yeah, it's an interesting question because we did detect some reverse ageism. People didn't like like used as a sort of stopgap. Dude, people didn't like dude.

The contest started basically 'cause we counted all the words in the language and we found that there was one too many.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: I see. So you wanted to figure out which one that was.

GREENMAN: Yeah, exactly. There was one extra one and rather than just arbitrarily decide on our own which one to knock out, we decided we would appeal to our very well-informed and language-obsessed readers. It wasn't ever intended to be a popular vote. We're taking nominations, after which we would go into the smoky backroom and pick a winner.

BLOCK: OK. Well, I think there would be one category which is ugly words; just words that sound nasty. Who were some of those?

GREENMAN: Phlegm. The word that came up the most was moist. People hate the word moist.

BLOCK: What is it with that? I don't understand, why is moist so widely hated?

GREENMAN: I don't know. I said in the round up that without the word it would leave bakers, meteorologists, and amateur pornographers lacking for what to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GREENMAN: But I think it's the texture of the word.

BLOCK: OK, Ben. Well, let's end the suspense here. The winner, wait for it...

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMROLL)

BLOCK: The winner of the word that should be eliminated from the English-language, Ben Greenman, is...

GREENMAN: Slacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF A DRUMROLL)

BLOCK: Slacks.

GREENMAN: Slacks, and the more that word stayed on the table, the more preposterous it seemed 'cause there's lots of other words for it. It's sort of, in our minds, stuck in time - maybe '78, '79. And the texture of the word also is terrible. People said it felt like rubbing the palm of their hand over polyester to say that word out loud.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GREENMAN: It's gone, by the way, from the language.

BLOCK: And what does that mean to be gone? What is...

GREENMAN: It's gone. It doesn't exist any longer anywhere. We took care of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: That's the power of The New Yorker, right there.

GREENMAN: It's gone.

BLOCK: And what does the winner get who submitted slacks as the word to eliminate?

GREENMAN: We decided in the end that we were going to have someone from our esteemed copy department write the word down on a piece of paper, crumple it up and throw it away. So it's a sort of ceremonial sacrifice of the word.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GREENMAN: And then, I think probably next week we're going to have people eliminate a number.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Any bets on which the most reviled number will be?

GREENMAN: I really don't know. Eleven and 17 is not that - I don't know. We'll see.

BLOCK: Well, Ben Greenman with The New Yorker, thanks very much for talking to us.

GREENMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.