“Gross” Words: Lost in Translation?

Consider the following words: phlegm, slacks, yolk, smear. If you think these are completely unconnected terms, you’re right. They only have one thing in common: English speakers are grossed out by them.

But don’t be confused! This isn’t about words that are mispronounced or used out of context, we’re not even referring to words and expressions used by teenagers, who often leave older generations of adults bewildered… these are words whose daily use results in an unpleasant experience. What causes disgust isn’t the meaning of the word, but the word itself. And some generate such repudiation, such repugnance to those who hear them, that it has resulted in a widespread fascination and even scientific studies in order to understand the causes of this phenomenon. Oh, and the term that takes the prize for most disgusting word is “moist,” in case you were wondering.

If this seems strange to you, or you don’t feel identified, it may be because it’s a phenomenon that isn’t so common in other languages, such as Spanish, but that is very frequent in English. From comments on forums, to blogs and even articles of interest in newspapers, aversion to words is on everyone’s lips, and opinions are as diverse as they are passionate.

Disgust can arise for different reasons: the distinctive features of sound, the semantic associations of the word, or its location in our collective imaginations. What’s true is that English uses more guttural sounds, and utilizes vibrations that don’t exist in Spanish. Culture is another factor, and consequently, so is the way in which the language we speak shapes our thoughts.

One question we may reflect on as translators is, if we can translate aversion to words (or even recognize it?) Or is this visceral rejection another one of those subtle nuances that are lost in translation?