STARKVILLE, Miss.--When thinking of an unpleasant word, how likely is it that "hamburger" or "soul" ends up on your list? By the same token, do "agape" or "igloo" inspire attractive images in your mind?
Apparently, beauty and ugliness are not just in the eye of the beholder, but also in the ears and on the tongue.
Robert Wolverton, a Mississippi State University foreign language professor, recently conducted a periodic study among students in his classes on pretty and ugly language. This year, at least one respondent considered "hoops" an attractive word, while another believed "sensual" to be repulsive.
In the survey involving 100 students, Wolverton asked each to deem five words as beautiful and five words as ugly, excluding obscenities. After collecting the data, he then separated the lists into the subcategories of male (44 participants) and female (56).
The word "love" was declared "most beautiful" with nine mentions. However, "puss" took the distinct place as the vilest word, also with nine repetitions.
"The insoluble question remains in a project such as this: are the words beautiful or ugly depending upon the sound or the meaning of the words?" Wolverton said.
The results of such a study are meant to provide some insight into the language patterns and attitudes developed by the genders. While some of the conclusions are understandable, there were a few surprises, Wolverton said.
One find his project unearthed was a seemingly more diverse vocabulary among the male participants. Only three words were repeated on the male beautiful list and five on the male ugly list.
By contrast, female participants repeated 27 and 24 words on the beautiful and ugly lists respectively.
"This can suggest that men aren't looking at things the same way," Wolverton said.
Wolverton also said he believes the selections reflect another gender difference, with female students more likely to list as "pretty" the words that reflect personal relationships.
"'Baby,' 'mother' and 'trust' were selected by female participants but fail to appear on any selections by males," he observed. Not surprisingly, he added, stereotypical words associated with femininity (heart, ballet and butterfly) emerged on the lists for females as well.
Wolverton said one stereotype--the idea of the persistently insensitive man--seems to fall somewhat when he had accumulated the beautiful words list of males. Several selections (luscious, peace, sunshine, and sweetheart) affirmed what Wolverton has deemed "male sensitivity."
"Food and drink are not as much on men's minds as one might suspect," Wolverton said, citing his findings that females listed more food-related words on their lists.
Wolverton acknowledged that 100 students was a microcosm of the student body at Mississippi State, but also showed the diversity of the group of respondents. His participants represented some two dozen different academic majors and represented every class from freshman to graduate student.
Wolverton said this is the second year he has conducted the research. The previous study showed a regional trend, with many references to church and church activities, he added.
"People in smaller towns would go to the same church, and so it's not surprising that a lot of their language was the same," he said.
NEWS EDITORS/DIRECTORS: For additional information, contact Dr. Wolverton at 662-325-2395.