What is it about certain words in the English language that make us cringe? How could one word make readers or listeners feel repulsed? Beyond curse words and words used to make one feel offended, there are innocent words that evoke a feeling of disgust simply because they sound ugly.
Some words have a higher rate of stomach-turn factor than others, whether their definitions intend for that or not. From Verblio to you, in no particular order, we present the ugliest words in the English language.
THE UGLIEST WORDS IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE: OUR TOP PICKS
Talk about stomach-turning! Regurgitate is a fancy word for “puke”. This conjures up visions of mother birds horking up chewed worms to feed to their demanding wide-beaked young. And is it any coincidence that “regurgitate” rhymes with abominate? It also makes no sense without the prefix re-. How could anyone actually throw up in reverse anyway?
Maybe it’s the final sound of nk that tips the balance from prosaic to disgusting. Or maybe it’s because our ’90s cartoon friends Beavis and Butthead liked to use the term chunk in connection to vomiting, as in to “hurl chunks”. Gross? Well, not if you’re a hungry baby bird we suppose, but nonetheless, we feel this word is just, well…icky.
This is another ugly sounding word, probably because of its combo sound of sc- followed by -ab. 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. Any derogatory word used to hurt or harm automatically qualifies it as an ugly word – with or without a second meaning of dry, crusty blood.
Any word ending in -tude, meaning displaying the characteristics of, instantly segregates it from everyday speech. After all, when was the last time you said, “Ah, the pulchritudinous scenery…”. Pulchritude is another word for beauty, from the Latin for physical comeliness. Yet it 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, For example: “a crepuscular accident causing the formation of suppurating scabs.” There is no such thing, but 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.)
Like pulchritude, crepuscular, with its middle letters forming the word pus, actually has a more charming meaning. Its definition is of, like, or active in the twilight. Yet, it also sounds like a term that could be used in a malpractice lawsuit. For example, “a crepuscular accident causing the formation of suppurating scabs.” There is no such thing, but we threw in the term suppurating because it has to do with the discharge of pus. (And it 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 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 the miracle of pregnancy. Doesn’t such a beautiful thing as carrying a child deserve a less-ugly-sounding term? We sure think so!
This word just plain stinks. The definition of fetid is smelling extremely unpleasant. Fetid odors can also prompt the hurling of chunks (also known as regurgitation), which is why it rounds out our top 10 picks of ugliest words.
Bonus! Because we couldn’t stop at ten. As another word ending in nk, and definitely detracting from any pretense of pulchritude, honk is both ugly and inaccurate. In plain English, honk sounds revolting, and it doesn’t do a great job of 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 plosives remind us of involuntary noises 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?
Many words from the Romance languages have a more flowing, euphonious sound, and thus give us prettier-sounding words. By the same token, many Germanic words that have made their way into the English language, convey the opposite—a hard, striking, uninviting sound. Yet so many have pleasant, even beautiful meanings despite their tone when spoken. Now this theory may not fit in all cases. After all, on our list, both pugilist and pulchritude are two clear examples from Latin and Greek.
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). It could be they remind us of something unpleasant. Did your ugliest words make it to our list? Let us know!