The Brain

Swearing More Is Actually A Sign Of Having A Better Vocabulary, Study Finds

December 21, 2015 | by Tom Hale

Photo credit: Atomazul/Shutterstock

The use of swear words and slurs is often associated with rudeness or ignorance. But according to a new study, that could be a load of sh*t: A large knowledge of profanities could actually be associated with a wider fluency with words in general.

One part of the study, published in Language Sciences, gathered 43 participants in their late teens to early twenties and compared their general vocabulary with their knowledge of taboo words.

Firstly, the participants were asked to do a Controlled Oral Word Association Test (COWAT). This assesses the subject’s ability to spontaneously produce words on command. The subject is given one minute to list as many words as possible that start with a certain letter. After this initial COWAT, they were then given another minute to name as many animals as possible and then do the same for “taboo words.” 

The results showed that the participants who listed a lot of words in the general fluency tests also tended to be able to name more animals and more “dirty words.” Interestingly, they found a positive relationship between taboo fluency and neurotic and open personality traits, but a negative correlation with agreeableness and conscientiousness. 

For your curiosity, “f*ck,” “sh!t” and “bi^ch” were the top three swear words that occurred most frequently in the test. A few of the slurs only occurred once or twice, but there was a total of 400 different swear words generated, which included creative concoctions such as “ass pirate,” “cockass,” and “pissant.”

It is worth noting, however, that the main finding of the small study was confirmation of the “fluency-is-fluency“ hypothesis. This idea basically says that your proficiency with words is universal across all contexts, whether that’s general vocabulary, nouns or profanities. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your vocabulary is wider if you swear more often in everyday life.

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