Hate the word 'moist'? Get over it – the alternatives are worse

This vanilla sponge cake is moist, not damp.
This vanilla sponge cake is moist, not damp. Photo: Katrina Meynink

It's time to liberate the word moist.

For years, the poor adjective has been relegated to outcast status. It was the front-runner when the Oxford Dictionary in 2016 attempted to compile a list of the most hated words in the English language. It has been the focus of scientific inquiry, with experts determining that its association with women's anatomy is to blame for people's aversion to it. You can even buy a T-shirt declaring moist the "worst word ever".

Still, it has its defenders – and last week, a heated discussion on Twitter added more evidence to the case for relieving moist of its stigma. A user posted a screenshot showing the introduction of a recipe written by Nigella Lawson in which the cookbook author seemed to reach for a synonym to the M-word, and the results were ... less than appealing. "This is a wonderfully damp, dense, and aromatic cake," read Lawson's description of a clementine-infused confection that was included in her book How to Eat.

The poster pointed out that the use of the word "damp" was the logical conclusion of the exiling of "moist" from the public square. "Oh everybody hates the word 'moist,' let's never use that word again," she captioned the image. "Well are you happy now? happy with your DAMP CAKE?"

Predictably, the use of the word often associated with moldy basements also elicited revulsion. All of which proved the point that there's really no synonym for the word "moist". "Damp" clearly doesn't cut it. Neither do "dampish", "dank" or "wettish", which are the other alternatives offered by Merriam-Webster. No thank you very much.

The inescapable fact is that we need moist. And so, it's time the moist-haters of the world find a new word to pick on.

"There's nothing wrong with the word 'moist,'" insists Dianne Jacob, a writing coach and the author of Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Memoir, Recipes, and More. She has her own taboo words: "delicious" ("it means nothing," she says) and "yummy", which she dismisses as "baby talk".

But "moist" has the benefit of conveying a particular quality of food, and therefore deserves a place in writers' arsenals, she says. "You want specific, and moist is specific."

Advertisement

Journalist and food writer Charlotte Druckman similarly sees utility in using "moist". Particularly when crafting recipes or other instructions, she notes, it's important to use clear language to help readers understand exactly how to achieve what they're aiming for.

"Does it accurately describe what you're trying to describe, and are those words effective?" she asks. "If you don't like them, isn't that better than using words that are misleading?"

She dismisses the word's synonyms. "You wouldn't say 'clammy' or 'sweaty', and 'damp' scares me because I go to 'soggy', and 'soggy' is awful," she says. (No one likes a soggy bottom, as former Great British Bake Off judge Mary Berry taught us.) "When you think about what your alternative might be, 'moist' suddenly doesn't seem so bad."

Alejandra Ramos, a chef and on-camera host, says people's reactions are even worse when the word is said aloud versus written. "It's in the back of my mind, so when I hear myself saying it, I'm like, 'People are going to hate it!'" she says.

The food writers I spoke to see sexism and prudishness at work in the collective squeamishness around "moist", and they have little patience for it. "Get over it," was Jacob's succinct retort. She also notes that there's no equivalent revulsion around adjectives that might describe a man's anatomy.

Ramos says, "There is some national sex-repression going on there – when it comes to food, people think of it as sanitised – especially on TV, and anything that hints at anything more carnal is a no-no."

Druckman notes that in the lexicon of cooking and writing about food, there are other, more substantive debates to be had. Food media is questioning all kinds of descriptors once flung around with abandon, from "accessible" (to whom?) to "authentic" to "healthy". 

In other words, it's a complicated world out there, and there are far bigger linguistic fish to fry. If their flesh happens to be tender and – yes – moist, then it's OK to just say so.

The Washington Post