It’s a common misconception that people who curse a lot are not as smart as people who don’t. You’ll often hear people say things like “Profanity is a sign of limited intelligence.” Or “Curse words are just a dumb person’s way of filling a sentence.” However, a new study has found that those who have a healthy repertoire of curse words at their disposal are more likely to have a richer vocabulary and higher language fluency than those who don’t. This challenges the long-held stereotype that people swear because they can’t find more intelligent words with which to express themselves.
“A voluminous taboo lexicon may better be considered an indicator of healthy verbal abilities,” reads the study, published in the November issue of Language Sciences.
For the first experiment, they gathered 43 participants aged between 18 and 22 years, and first asked them to rattle off as many swear or taboo words as they could in 60 seconds. Next, they had to recite as many animal names as they could in 60 seconds. The researchers used animal names as an indication of a person’s overall vocabulary and interest in language and words. In social science this is known as the Controlled Oral Word Association Test.
The participants also submitted to so-called FAS tasks, which are standardized verbal fluency tests.
In a second experiment, another 49 participants aged between 18 and 22 were asked to perform a similar task – this time they were asked to write down as many curse words and animal names starting with the letter “A” as they could. They also completed FAS tasks to assess their overall language fluency.
Psychologists Kristin Jay and Timothy Jay basically concluded this:
“A folk assumption about colloquial speech is that taboo words are used because speakers cannot find better words with which to express themselves: because speakers lack vocabulary. A competing possibility is that fluency is fluency regardless of subject matter—that there is no reason to propose a difference in lexicon size and ease of access for taboo as opposed to emotionally neutral words.”
Verbal intelligence is a huge professional advantage, not to mention a life skill that many people lack. So, go forth and swear with impunity! But just because there is a link between swear words and wider vocabularies, that does not mean that you should be throwing those words around job interviews or your grandparents anniversary party! Part of what the researchers found was the ability to understand nuances and context in swearing and showing that those people knew and understood more words and wider vocabularies. So, while it’s awesome that you’re smarter, remember to use your intelligence and know your audience!