Survey by MSU prof updates student feelings for certain words

Contact: Robbie Ward

STARKVILLE, Miss.--If words were people, then "eloquent," "love" and "symphony" would get dates most Friday nights.

Sadly, "vomit," "moist" and "puke" likely would stay home alone, wondering what went wrong.

Which begs the question: How are words pretty or ugly?

That's the question Robert E. Wolverton Sr., a Mississippi State classics professor, recently asked in a survey of some 75 students in his classes. Developed from Wolverton's natural academic curiosity, the poll is part of the foreign language faculty member's "semi-frequent" examination of how students at the land-grant university view widely used terms.

Of the 148 different "beautiful" words submitted by students this year are several listed multiple times: eloquent (six), love (four) and symphony (four). Beautiful, lavender and tranquility each received three mentions.

Of the 138 "ugly" words, the following are mentioned multiple times: vomit (six), moist (five), puke (five), phlegm (four), slaughter (four), snot (four), ugly (four), damp (three), and mucus (three).

Also, the name of a football team may make an ugly word for some, while food types have the sound of beauty.

Wolverton also asked students to spend some time thinking about what makes a word either pretty or unattractive. The association between words and sounds, while being pronounced often, factor into how they are considered, Wolverton said.

The same can be true of a word's language of origin, Wolverton noted, adding that many words viewed as pretty "often have Greek or Latin origins." In general, the short, monosyllable words seemed to be viewed as ugly, while polysyllabic words seemed to have more likability, based on years of the survey's results, he said.

Compared to previous years, one difference in the 2009 survey results involves the selection of religious-themed words as pretty. According to Wolverton, fewer students listed them this year.

Expressing surprise, he observed that "so many of our students come from small towns. "For many of them the church is the social center."

Also, "mellifluous" and "lullaby," two words consistently considered pretty over the years, dropped off this year's list. "Susurrus," which describes a soft, whispering or rustling sound, made the list for the first time, however.

Wolverton said he thinks the increasing number of iPhones and other modern communication technologies may be providing students with "greater word diversity on a regular basis."

This year's class survey is the fourth for the veteran educator. He said he didn't have a specific goal when he created it, just an interest to see what his students were thinking.

"I was just curious to see what would come out of it," he said.

NEWS EDITORS/DIRECTORS: For more on the 2009 survey information, contact Dr. Wolverton at 662-325-2395 or rew1@ra.msstate.edu.

For more information about Mississippi State University, see //www.msstate.edu/.