If someone’s ever accused you of sounding less intelligent because you swear too much, don’t worry – science has got your back. A 2015 study found that those who have a healthy repertoire of curse words at their disposal are more likely to have a richer vocabulary 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.
As Stephen Fry once said, “The sort of twee person who thinks swearing is in any way a sign of a lack of education or a lack of verbal interest is just f*cking lunatic.”
Psychologists Kristin Jay and Timothy Jay of Marist College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (not clear if related) came up with the hypothesis that people who are well-versed in curse words are more likely to have greater overall language fluency too.
For the first experiment, they gathered 43 participants (30 women) 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.
As any intelligible American English taboo word or phrase was considered fair game, the participants ended up generating a total of 533 taboo words, including the rather obscure “cum dumpster” and “ass pirate”.
The participants also submitted to so-called FAS tasks, which are standardised verbal fluency tests.
In a second experiment, another 49 participants (34 women) 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.
Publishing in the journal Language Sciences, the researchers also found that expressive curse words were generated at higher rates than slurs, and there was little difference between what the female and male participants could come up with.
“[C]onsistent with findings that do not show a sex difference in taboo lexicon size, no overall sex difference in taboo word generation was obtained,” they reported.
They found that the ability to generate curse words was not an index of overall language poverty – in fact, they found that taboo fluency is positively correlated with other measures of verbal fluency.
“That is, a voluminous taboo lexicon may better be considered an indicator of healthy verbal abilities rather than a cover for their deficiencies,” the researchers concluded.
“Speakers who use taboo words understand their general expressive content as well as nuanced distinctions that must be drawn to use slurs appropriately.
“The ability to make nuanced distinctions indicates the presence of more rather than less linguistic knowledge, as implied by the POV [Poverty of Vocabulary] view.”
Now, of course, it should be said that the sample size for this study was small, but until a larger cohort can be assessed, we can look to one of the greatest living masters of the English language, Stephen Fry, for his view.
Watch below as he discusses the joys of swearing, and feel that sweet, sweet vindication. But just remember: dropping “ass pirate” into a job interview is still not advised.
This article was originally published in December 2015.