Brain and Body

People Who Curse a Lot Have Better Vocabularies, According to Science

December 17, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Graffiti in black of a middle finger
Photo credit: Matt Brown/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Sorry, Mom.

If you have the mouth of a sailor, you’ve surely been lectured at some point about how it makes you sound less intelligent, or that people only curse when they have nothing better to say. Now you can roll your eyes and kindly argue back that, according to science, people who curse more have a richer vocabulary.

Psychologists Kristin Jay of Marist College and Timothy Jay of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts hypothesized that people who have foul mouths are likely to have greater overall vocabularies as well. To test it out, they rounded up a pool of volunteers and planned two experiments for the study.

The first experiment included 43 participants ages 18 to 22, 30 of which were women. The volunteers had to shout out as many curse words or taboo words as they could think of in a minute. The participants ended up rattling off a total of 533 curse or taboo words. You’re probably wondering if that many swear words even exist, but since any taboo word or phrase was accepted, the volunteers got pretty creative — “ass pirate” and “cum dumpster” made it on the list, just to name a few.

Next, the volunteers were asked to name as many animals as they could in 60 seconds, which the researchers interpreted as an indication of the person’s overall vocabulary… somewhat questionable. However, the participants also completed FAS tasks, which are standardized tests that assess verbal fluency.

In the second experiment, the researchers gathered another 49 participants ages 18 to 22, 34 of which were women, and asked them to undertake a similar task. This time, instead of testing them verbally, the volunteers were asked to write down as many swear words or animal names starting with the letter “A” as possible. They, too, completed FAS tasks to enable to researchers to gauge their overall language fluency.

The findings showed that the people who cursed more also named more animals, leading the researchers to conclude that foul-mouthed individuals simply have larger vocabularies.

"Unfortunately, when it comes to taboo language, it is a common assumption that people who swear frequently are lazy, do not have an adequate vocabulary, lack education or simply cannot control themselves," the researchers wrote. "The overall finding of this set of studies, that taboo fluency is positively correlated with other measures of verbal fluency, undermines the [normal] view of swearing."

The researchers found that, in the curse word activities, the study volunteers tended to use more pejoratives and derogatory terms towards women than racial slurs — which in itself is an interesting finding given that the majority of the participants were women themselves. The reason behind this remains less clear, but the researchers hypothesize that using a slur requires an individual to understand the nuanced meaning of the slur as well as the context in which it’s being used.   

While the study size was relatively small, the findings still offer an interesting opposition to the typical view that avid swearers are less intelligent. Or perhaps these curse-word lovers were just particularly knowledgeable about zoology…?

Either way, the next time someone tries to own you with the whole “people who curse are less intelligent” thing, you can shut him or her down with the findings of this scientific study. Plus, as Peter Capaldi (the current and twelfth doctor in Doctor Who) says, “There is no such thing as too much swearing. Swearing is just a piece of linguistic mechanics. The words in-between are the clever ones.”

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