Friday, 11 December 2015

Being fluent at swearing is a sign of healthy verbal ability

By guest blogger Richard Stephens

Swearing is an incredibly versatile aspect of language – take the word “fuck” for example. This highly charged word, still offensive to many people, has many uses beyond its literal meaning. This was colourfully demonstrated by linguists Anthony McEnery and Zhonghua Xiao from Lancaster University in the UK in their research on spoken and written English. They observed its use as a general expletive (oh fuck!), a personal insult (you fuck!), a cursing expletive (fuck you!), an emphatic intensifier (fucking marvellous!), in pronominal form (like fuck), as an idiomatic set phrase (fuck all) and, last but not least, the hilariously labelled destinational usage (fuck off!).

Still, despite this complexity, there remains a very commonly held belief that swearing is a sign of inarticulateness and low IQ – something that the US-based psychologists Kristin and Timothy Jay set out to challenge in new research published in Language Sciences. At the heart of the “poverty of vocabulary” explanation for swearing is the assumption that people swear because they lack the intellectual capacity or motivation to bring to mind a more suitable expression. It’s the idea that people swear as a substitute for more reasoned and articulate speech. The Jays ran a simple yet ingenious study to test one specific aspect of this popular theory: are people who are more fluent in swear words less fluent in other forms of vocabulary?

Dozens of student volunteers were set a rather unusual task – to say as many different swear words as they could think of in one minute. As a point of comparison they also were asked for as many different animals and as many different non-swear words beginning with specific letters of the alphabet as they could bring to mind in a minute.

It turned out that the number of different swear words that could be thought of in one minute averaged 9; that the number of non-swear words averaged 14; while the number of animal words averaged 22. But of more interest was the observation that these word production scores were positively correlated with one another. In other words, the volunteers who could produce the most swear words tended also to be able to produce the most animal words and non-swear words. Yet if swearing was a sign of an impoverished vocabulary, then the opposite should have been the case. The same pattern was seen when volunteers wrote down swear words rather than saying them out loud.

The Jays’ study is fascinating because it demonstrates that being fluent at swearing can be seen as a sign of a healthy verbal ability just as much as having a sizeable vocabulary of non-swear words. This is the first study to have shown, regardless of taboo aspects of word meanings, that “fluency is fluency” as the authors put it. Still, it is worth noting that fluency is not the same as frequency. This research did not assess whether swear words are more often uttered by persons of lower IQ or a more limited vocabulary.

The research does indicate that a well-stocked lexicon of swear words may complement the lexicon as a whole, allowing a variety of more intense emotional expressiveness. This need not only be to convey negative emotions such as anger and frustration because swearing can also communicate emotions that are positive like joy and surprise. The reaction of British Olympic athlete Briony Shaw immediately after having unexpectedly and dramatically won a bronze medal in Beijing in 2008 provides a heartfelt and utterly spontaneous example of this kind of emotional expression. Live on BBC television, Shaw enthusiastically proclaimed “I am so fucking happy!”


Jay, K., & Jay, T. (2015). Taboo word fluency and knowledge of slurs and general pejoratives: deconstructing the poverty-of-vocabulary myth Language Sciences, 52, 251-259 DOI: 10.1016/j.langsci.2014.12.003

--further reading--
Swearing – the language of life and death
The dark side of swearing - it may deter emotional support from others
I swear I'm telling you the truth

Post written by Richard Stephens for the BPS Research Digest. You can read more of Richard’s work in his critically acclaimed popular science book, Black Sheep The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad, available from all good book stores and online. Richard is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Keele University and Chair of the Psychobiology Section of the British Psychological Society.

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