The use of obscene or taboo language, or swearing as it’s more commonly known, is often seen as a sign that the speaker lacks vocabulary, cannot express themselves in a less offensive way, or even lacks intelligence. Studies have shown, however, that swearing may in fact display a more, rather than less, intelligent use of language.
While swearing can become a habit, we choose to swear in different contexts and for different purposes: for linguistic effect, to convey emotion, for laughs, or perhaps even to be deliberately nasty. Psychologists interested in when and why people swear try to look past the stereotype that swearing is the language of the unintelligent and illiterate.
Are you fluent in swearing?
In fact, a study by psychologists from Marist College in the US found links between how fluent a person is in the English language and how fluent they are in swearing. The former, verbal fluency, can be measured by asking volunteers to think of as many words beginning with a certain letter of the alphabet as they can in one minute. People with greater language skills can generally think of more examples in the allotted time. Based on this approach, the researchers created the swearing fluency task.
This task requires volunteers to list as many different swear words as they can think of in one minute. By comparing scores from both the verbal and swearing fluency tasks, it was found that the people who scored highest on the verbal fluency test also tended to do best on the swearing fluency task. The weakest in the verbal fluency test also did poorly on the swearing fluency task.
What this correlation suggests is that swearing isn’t simply a sign of language poverty, lack of general vocabulary, or low intelligence. Instead, swearing appears to be a feature of language that an articulate speaker can use in order to communicate with maximum effectiveness. And actually, some uses of swearing go beyond just communication.