Good news! Swearing could indicate higher intelligence.
People who frequently swear are, contrary to popular belief, more likely to have a larger vocabulary than their more polite peers. According to a recent study published in the Language Sciences Journal, a foul mouth does not mean the owner is lazy, uneducated, or can’t control themselves. This is good news for me and certain of my friends, all of whom are highly educated and erudite, yet in the main, prefer to let fly with the odd expletive. I have, on a previous occasion, waxed lyrical about the pleasure and benefit to one’s sanity of not suffering fools gladly. A well timed ‘f*** off’ is occasionally, believe me, immensely satisfying.
In fact, the use of swear words makes us more confident – even when we are more articulate in other circumstances.
In the study, 49 participants, aged between 18 and 22 were asked to say as many swear words as they could think of in 60 seconds. [I would pass this test with flying colours, and so would most of my friends and my ex-wife, who taught me most of them in the first place.] They were then asked to do the same with the names of animals. Astonishingly, those who knew the most swear words were more likely to name the most animals.
Kristin and Timothy Jay, the US based psychologists who co-wrote the study, claims it proves swearing is positively related to verbal fluency. They added that those who used taboo words were not only more articulate in other areas, but were also able to use language expressively and make nuanced distinctions. The ability to make nuanced distinctions indicates the presence of more, rather than less, linguistic knowledge.
We tend to swear more when we are angry and profanity can be an emotional coping mechanism that in turn makes us feel more resilient. Swearing seems to represent a harmless emotional release that can help individuals feel stronger, though only when practised in moderation. In another experiment, participants were asked to remember as many profanities as possible both before and after playing an aggressive computer game. After the game, they were able to recall a wider variety of swear words and were also found to use them much more often!
Obviously, the games made people feel more aggressive so their language also became more aggressive. Using taboo words when we are emotional may serve to make that behaviour more acceptable. As we grow up, we learn what these words are. We also learn that using them while we are emotional helps us to feel stronger.
More good news is that another recent study has proved that swearing is a useful way of mitigating pain. It seems that everyone is at least tempted to swear when pain is inflicted – hitting your thumb with a hammer or stubbing your toe will usually do it. Swearing distracts the brain from the pain.
It’s human nature to judge others on the basis of their speech. This is not just limited to the words they use, but it also takes into account such things as their use of slang and their accents. When it comes to swearing, it ‘s a common assumption that people who swear frequently are lazy, do not have an adequate vocabulary, lack education, or simply cannot control themselves. This assumption is obviously incorrect.
In conclusion, the Jays said that the overall finding of the study, that swearing and cursing is positively correlated with other measures of verbal fluency, undermines the accepted view of swearing.
It’s now thought that those who use swear words understand their special expressive effect and significance as well as being aware of the nuanced distinctions to use those words only when appropriate. This ability – the skill to know when and where to use profanities appropriately indicates the presence of more rather than less linguistic knowledge.
Thank you for listening. You can all now go away.
Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.