Language myths: Swearing shows limited vocabulary and low intelligence

by Elena-Andreea Oprea

Despite the fact that curse words have been introduced to the English language as early as 1,000 years ago (Hughes, 1998), swearing is still considered a bad habit, and people who swear are automatically perceived as less intelligent and as possessors of a limited vocabulary. For example, Mulac A. (1976) concluded that speakers who use obscenity were placed lower in socio-intellectual ranks than those who refrain, and James V. O’Connor (2000) has stated that “Swearing corrupts the English language. […] It doesn’t communicate clearly. It’s the sign of a weak vocabulary.” This is belief is named the poverty-of-vocabulary (POV) hypothesis.  The following article will discuss arguments contrary to the POV view.

Language studies do not confirm the POV notion. Assuming that people use taboo words because of  restricted vocabulary entails that foul language is used when people cannot access alternative lexical items. Nevertheless, numerous linguistics explorations (Erard, 2007; Jay, 2003; Levelt, 1989) reveal that when speech participants cannot express themselves, they produce utterances such as “er” or “um”, rephrase, or ponder their discourse, rather than exhibiting taboo language.

A recent study conducted by psychologists at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (Jay et al. 2015) compares general language fluency to swearword fluency, in order to invalidate the concept that swearing indicates inarticulateness. In consideration of this analysis, Controlled Oral Word Association Test (COWAT) was employed, which requires volunteers to come up with words beginning with a specific letter, such as F, A and S, in the duration of a minute. The researchers agree with the “fluency is fluency” theory, which implies that there is a positive correlation between taboo fluency and verbal fluency, whereas the POV view anticipates a negative correlation between the two fluencies.

The study results indicate that the individuals who achieved the highest at the general language test also had higher swearing language fluency, whilst the others had poor results in both tests. This research not only proves that expletives are not indicators of impoverished vocabulary, but it certainly demonstrates that swearing is, as Dr. Richard Stephens from Keele University describes (2015, p.69), “one of the many features of language that a skilled and articulate speaker has at their disposal to communicate with maximum effectiveness.”

Using data from a resource named British National Corpus, researchers from Lancaster University analysed how the F-word and its derivatives were used by individuals according to their gender, age and social background (McEnery et al. 2004). For the purpose of this essay, the social background is the only category of interest. Unsurprisingly, the most constant users of the particular curse word are participants from lower classes (DE and C2), whereas people in junior managerial and administrative positions (C1), who are perhaps aspiring towards AB occupations, are more aware of the utterances they produce, hence demonstrating a significantly lower usage. What is particularly interesting, however, is that swearing increases substantially at the very top of the social ladder. One possible explanation for this phenomenon is that unlike people from C1 social rank, AB graded participants are in more secure positions, and, hence, less attentive to the language they use; but they might also prefer to proclaim their authority through cursing.

This population has a high verbal and intellectual capacity, which qualifies them for their superior positions; otherwise they would be unable to retain their authoritarian post. Therefore, what the previously mentioned study shows is that since there is an increase of swearing fluency in higher social ranks, taboo words have no correlation to IQ and lexicon size.

Based on the evidence provided by the aforementioned investigations, one can conclude that despite the stigma associated with taboo words, expletives are not indicators of limited vocabulary and low intelligence; on the contrary, people who use profanity demonstrate higher cognitive capacity and a more voluminous lexicon.




Erard, M (2007) Um – Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and what They Mean. New York: Pantheon.

Hughes, G. (1998) Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English. 2nd Revised Edition. London: Penguin

Jay, K.L. and Jay, T.B. (2015) Taboo Word Fluency and Knowledge of Slurs and General Pejoratives: Deconstructing the Poverty-of-vocabulary Myth. Language Sciences. [online] 52, pp. 251-259 [Accessed 27 January 2017]

Jay, T.B. (2003) The Psychology of Language. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

Levelt, W.J.M. (1998) Speaking: From Intention to Articulation. 1 MIT pbk ed. Cambridge, Mass: Mit Press.

McEnery, A.M and Xiao, R.Z. (2004) Swearing in modern British English: the case of fuck in the BNC. Language and Literature. 13 (3), pp. 235-268.

Mehl, M and Pennebaker, J. (2003) The sounds of social life: a psychometric analysis of students’ daily social environments and natural conversations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 84 (4), pp. 857-870.

Mulac, A and , (1976) Effects of obscene language upon three dimensions of listener attitude. Communication Monographs. 43 (4), pp. 300-307.

O’Connor, J. (2000) Cuss Control: The Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cursing. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Stephens, R. (2015) Black Sheep: The hidden benefits of being bad. Great Britain: John Murray Learning.


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