Sure, a lot of people seem to think that those who swear a lot or more often are less intelligent than others or that their vocabulary is lacking but that may not be the case. While not everyone likes swear words or things of the sort, that doesn’t mean those who choose to use them are any less intelligent.
Research back in 2014, research from those at Marist College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts works through this concept trying to break down the truth behind it. According to Scientific American, those working on this carried out three different studies and for part of that, they asked participants to say as many words as they could starting with specifically given letters during a set time period. Basically, the more words they could come up with the larger a person’s vocabulary was noted as being. While there was more to all of this than just that you get the gist, right?
The abstract posted on all of this goes as follows:
A fold assumption about colloquial speech is the 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. In order to test these hypotheses, we compared general verbal fluency via the Controlled Oral Word Association Test (COWART) with taboo word fluency and animal word fluency in spoken and written formats. Both formats produced positive correlations between COWAT fluency, animal fluency, and taboo word fluency, supporting the fluency-is-fluency hypothesis. In each study, a set of 10 taboo words accounted for 55-60% of all taboo word data. Expressives were generated at higher rates than slurs. There was little sex-related variability in taboo word generation, and, consistent with findings that do not show a sex difference in taboo lexicon size, no overall sex difference in taboo word generation was obtained. Taboo fluency was positively correlated with the Big Five personality traits neuroticism and openness and negatively correlated with agreeableness and conscientiousness. Overall the findings suggest that, with the exception of female-sex-related slurs, taboo expressives and general pejoratives comprise the core of the category of taboo words while slurs tend to occupy the periphery, and the ability to generate taboo language is not an index of overall language poverty.
It seems the results of all of this can really reveal a lot. Sure, we need to take them with a grain of salt but it’s quite interesting to learn about, isn’t it? I know, it might not sound like much but if you like to curse and you’ve been told before how ‘bad’ it was perhaps this could help you in some ways to feel less crappy about it.
Scientific American wrote as follows on the topic at hand:
Results from Study 1 showed that participants generated 400 unique taboo words (see the Results for some of the more colorful entries) and, as the researchers predicted, fluency in generating these words correlated positively with performance on the COWAT. This finding was replicated in Studies 2 and 3, using a written version of the tests as well. The more taboo words participants could generate, the more verbally fluent they were in general.
This finding can serve as a nice empirical middle-finger from vulgarians everywhere, directed at those who had, until now, been unfairly judging them for their linguistic abilities. Swearing, it seems, can be creative, smart, and even downright lyrical. This should also open our eyes to the unique subfield of research that spends its time deconstructing the many and varied ways in which, and reasons why, we swear. For example, did you know that some linguists and philosophers of language draw meaningful distinctions between taboo words that express heightened emotional states (e.g., f*ck), general pejoratives (e.g., f*cker) whose meaning is connotative but person-directed, and slurs (e.g., sl*t), which have both expressive and derogatory descriptive elements? I did not know this.
That said, these results need to be taken with a grain of salt. Knowledge of taboo words and the regular use of those words are two very different things. I might very well have an encyclopedic knowledge of vulgarity, but I might also have the tact necessary to regulate my language in social situations. In other words, just because verbally fluent people have the ability to cuss with the best of them, does not mean that they will do so. This presents a bit of a problem with the current research since the authors do seem to want to make the claim that their results inform what kinds of people actually curse in the real world. This conclusion cannot be drawn from these data. The studies tell us nothing about how speakers use taboo words, just what they would be capable of saying if they chose to use them. Swearing regularly and being able to generate a long list of curse words when prompted are very different. Indeed, the POV hypothesis could still survive this criticism. It still might be true that those with greater verbal fluency, even though they also have greater taboo fluency, swear less because they have the lexical database required to actually express themselves in other ways.
Don’t get me wrong, sure it might not be a set in stone thing but as someone who likes to curse, I feel it is quite accurate. No, I don’t curse 24/7 but I do like to let my shits and fucks fly here and there without thinking twice. How do you feel about all of this?