If you’re like most us, you grew up being reprimanded when you uttered those oh so controversial curse words. Parents would sigh, teachers would scorn, and your classmates would laugh. But, over time, after so many trips to the Principal’s office, nights grounded, and lectures about how only the uneducated and vulgar swear, the appeal may have worn off. So if you’re reading this headline and thinking “You’re kidding, right?”, I’m not surprised. But the beauty of this is that I’m not kidding.
Science suggests that if you have a rich vocabulary of swear words, you just may be the bomb in the language department.
Here are the details. A recent 2015 study published in Language Science compared the general vocabulary of a group of 43 subjects with their knowledge of swear words. The researchers assessed vocabulary through three one-minute language exercises. The first one minute was spent asking each study subject to name as many words as they could that started with a particular letter. Next, the researchers asked subjects to name as many animals as they could within one minute. In the final minute, the researchers asked each subject to name as many so-called “taboo words” (aka swear words) as they could.
While you might have expected that the people who could name more swear words are probably those who lacked general language skills– the data tell the opposite story. Those subjects who were able to name a lot of words in the first two tests were also those who got creative in the taboo words they named. These results aren’t surprising given that if a person has an expansive vocabulary overall then this will naturally include swear words as well – the so-called “fluency is fluency” theory.
Interestingly, not all uses of swear words are equal – it takes intelligence to use swear words correctly.
After all, can you deny that there is a significant distinction between an asshat and a pissant? I thought not.
While this is one of the first studies to examine swear words and vocabulary, there have been on-going studies assessing the consequences of swearing. If you’re wondering if there is a sharp downside of having an extensive vocabulary of swear words – fear not. An article by researchers Drs. Jay and Janschewitz mention that in their work analyzing over 10,000 “public episodes of swearing,” they have never seen negative consequences resulting from this language. In fact, they find that most uses are “not in anger; they are innocuous or produce positive outcomes.” In their article, they cite that swearing can reduce stress, substitute for physical aggression, promote humor, enhance storytelling or foster the connection between people. Another study even suggested that swearing can increase pain tolerance by disrupting the link between fear of pain and pain perception. All of these benefits may underlie the widespread use of swear words, even among the most educated, smart, and creative.
Swearing may not only serve as a marker of an extensive vocabulary but – when used in conversation – could have a cathartic effect.
This is not to say that you should now infuse curse words into your every sentence for your overall well-being. Not is it meant to suggest that people that swear are smarter or well-versed than others. The researchers of the study on swearing and vocabulary never examined how frequently the people swore in conversation. Rather, what was measured was simply their knowledge of swear words. The takeaway, therefore, is that knowing a vast array of swear words is not a marker of low intelligence, poor breeding, ignorance or whatever other nasty traits we may have been told it represented.
Even in the most casual of circumstances, people will always be offended by swear words. So you may want to limit swearing for those times when so-called “clean” language just won’t capture the situation at hand, for example, when you meet someone who can only be described as a douchebag. After all, it shows that you understand the language and are choosing the most appropriate term to describe that unsavory person. And saying it might even serve to reduce your frustration with them and get a laugh or two from some new friends.
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