Before we begin, let’s agree that Anglo-Saxon potty-mouth expressions—you know, curse words and the like—should be outside the parameters of this discussion. If we’re going to get into things like phonology and etymology to isolate the truly ugliest words in the English language from their over 400,000 neighbors, we should elevate our discourse past the gutter.
But there are plenty of words that aren’t necessarily offensive because of their meaning. Rather, they just sound like the plain ugliest words. Why is that?
The Ugliest Words in the English Language: Our Top Picks
In no particular order the ugliest words…
A fancy word for puke—a not-so-ugly sounding synonym—regurgitate conjures visions of mother birds horking up semi-digested worms and slugs to feed to their incessantly demanding wide-beaked young. Regurgitate appropriately rhymes with abominate, and it’s one of those words that makes no sense without the prefix re- (How could anyone actually throw up in reverse anyway?)
This word just sounds ugly. Maybe it’s the final sound of -nk that tips the balance from prosaic to disgusting. Also, our ’80s cartoon friends Beavis and Butthead liked to use a term chunk in connection with regurgitating, as in to hurl chunks. Gross? Well, not if you’re a hungry baby bird, and those nutritious chunks are…well, nevermind.
This is another ugly sounding word, probably because of its combo sound of sc- followed by -ab. Fittingly, a scab is nothing but dried, congealed blood. Then there is its pejorative connotation of nonunion workers crossing picket lines to work when others are on strike. (OK, so the term pejorative connotation might be a bit brainiac here. Let’s slim that down a bit: Being called a scab by incensed picketers is the most insulting thing angry picketers can call anyone. Well, maybe scumbag qualifies as well.)
Any word ending in -tude, meaning displaying the characteristics of, instantly segregates it from everyday speech (when was the last time you said, “Ah, the pulchritudinous scenery…”). Pulchritude, another word for beauty, from the Latin for physical comeliness, has the ironic characteristic of coming nowhere near the concept of beauty. It sounds like something you’d read in a legal report or a jury trial (“Ladies and gentlemen: My client is totally innocent of the charges of pulchritude…”).
Like pulchritude, crepuscular, with its middle letters forming the word pus, actually has a more charming meaning: of, like or active in the twilight. However, it also sounds like a term that could be used in a malpractice lawsuit, as in a crepuscular accident causing the formation of suppurating scabs. (There is no such thing, really. We threw in the term suppurating, because it has to do with the discharge of pus, and the word is far more pleasant sounding than crepuscular.)
Where did we get this unpleasant sounding word? Did someone remove the letter s from smooch and come up for a term that goes from meaning a chaste peck to that sucking sound of your least favorite relative “borrowing” money? As ugly as it sounds, however, this versatile word can be both a verb and a noun, the latter referring to your relative, the former to what he does right before you receive a grateful smooch.
Among the many pretentious words in our language, this one combines an ugly sound with a euphemism for a person who fights. The -ist suffix doesn’t help soften the harsh hissing sound. It reminds us of the boos and hisses at a boxing match where the bloodthirsty crowd doesn’t get its fill of crepuscular activity.
Sounding somewhat like the noise a baby bird might make choking on a partially regurgitated slug, quark is a surprisingly pithy scientific term. That would be because most scientific terms sound, uh, scientific. Judge for yourself: In physics a quark is defined as “any of a number of subatomic particles carrying a fractional electric charge, postulated as building blocks of the hadrons.” What is a hadron? We’re glad you asked. A hadron is a subatomic particle and it includes baryons and mesons that work together. Unfortunately, our definitions disappear into a black hole, where we can mostly agree that quark is an ugly word.
This medical term has to do with both the miracle of birth and pregnancy. But that still doesn’t make it sound very pretty.
Edging out the word stink in our list of ugly English words, fetid simply stands on its own even without knowing its meaning. Of course, knowing that it connotes the smell emanating from something really putrid helps. When we smell something that merely stinks, we say “pee-yew!” Fetid odors normally prompt the hurling of chunks.
Bonus! Because we couldn’t stop at ten. Another word ending in -nk, definitely detracting from any pretense of pulchritude, honk falls into the quasi-realm of onomatopoeic dissonance by being both ugly and inaccurate. Yes, once again we slipped into the brainiac mode here with that reference to onomatopoeic dissonance. In plain English, honk sounds ugly, and it doesn’t really do a good a job portraying the sound of a car’s horn.
Why are These Words Ugly?
How ugly or beautiful words sound may have a lot to do with what our mouths are doing when we speak them. Think about what your mouth and tongue are forming as you make a “pu” sound, for example. It’s a plosive: your lips tighten to stop air flow and then you expel air.
Go ahead—do it now while you’re thinking about it.
Some people suspect that we don’t like plosives because it’s an involuntary noise that our hunter-gatherer ancestors made long ago if they inadvertently put poisonous, bitter berries in their mouths. (Hey, evolutionary value!)
It’s one theory of why words like pus are almost universally disliked. They feel wrong—or even disgusting and dangerous—in our mouths. They feel like words that should be spit out. In fact, we are expelling the ugliest words by saying them.
Back to the Roots?
One theory maintains that words from the Romance languages have a more flowing, euphonious sound, and thus give us prettier-sounding words. By the same token, Germanic words, with their hard k and guttural sounds, convey the opposite—a hard, striking, uninviting sound. But in our list, both pugilist and pulchritude are two clear examples from Latin and Greek, so this theory may not fit all cases.
What’s the final consensus? The reason we find particular words in the English language so ugly probably has a lot to do with the way our mouths and throats behave when we form those words, a little bit to do with their origins, and a little dependent on context, as well (the word “hate,” for example). Did your ugliest words make it to our list? Let us know!