Experts Explain Why Certain Words Sound Fat

It's not just you: researchers say humans literally size up words based on how they sound.

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Travis Rathbone for Reader’s Digest

To understand why terms like butterscotch and bread pudding sound particularly rich and heavy, researchers at New York University asked for test subjects’ opinions of the hypothetical ice cream flavors frish and frosh. Without ever having tasted either, people rated the frosh ice cream as smoother and creamier than the frish. Why? Because of what linguists call sound symbolism, in which vowel sounds generated in different areas of the mouth influence how we think about a word.

In many languages, front vowels (like e and i) indicate small, light things (like little or itsy-bitsy), while back vowels (o and u) convey big things (like humongous and gargantuan). According to a theory called the Frequency Code, front vowels have a higher pitch, and we have learned to associate them with small things. This theory may even relate to the origins of human language: For example, people interacted with larger animals like lions and connected their lower-pitched sounds with bigger size, while animals like birds convey smallness.

But today, it seems as though fat and skinny words have found their way into our fridges and pantries, according to Stanford University linguistics professor Dan Jurafsky. In one study, Jurafsky looked at the way ice cream manufacturers named their flavors and discovered that decadent titles such as rocky road, cookie dough, and Jamoca almond fudge use back vowels. Meanwhile, cracker brands—a lighter, thinner food—have mostly front-vowel names like Triscuit, Cheez-It, and Ritz.

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