Experts Explain Why Certain Words Sound Fat

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

pop digest fat sweets
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.

Become more interesting every week!

Get our Read Up newsletter

how we use your e-mail

Some people like to travel by train because 
it combines the slowness of a car with the cramped public exposure of 
an airplane.

Dennis Miller

I think my pilot was a little inexperienced. We were sitting on the runway, and he said, “OK, folks, we’re gonna be taking off in a just few—whoa! Here we go.”

Kevin Nealon

“I can’t wait until your vacation is over.” 
—Everyone following you on Instagram


A man knocked on my door and asked for a donation toward the local swimming pool. So I gave him a glass of water.

Comedian Greg Davies

Funny Jokes

Just found the worst page in the entire dictionary. What I saw was disgraceful, disgusting, dishonest, and disingenuous.


Funny Jokes

Client: We need you to log in to the YouTube and make all our company videos viral.


Funny Jokes

My cat just walked up to the paper shredder and said, “Teach me 
everything you know.”


Funny Jokes

“Just because you can’t dance doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dance.” 

@yoyoha (Josh Hara)

Funny Jokes

My parents didn’t want to move to Florida, but they turned 60 and that’s the law.

—Jerry Seinfeld

Funny Jokes

Q: What do you call an Amish guy with his hand in a horse’s mouth?

A: A mechanic.