Monday, December 21, 2015


Richard Stephens, who won an Ig Nobel Prize for his research on swearing, writes about a new discovery. His essay, in BPS Research Digest, has the headline “Being fluent at swearing is a sign of healthy verbal ability“. It says: “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?”
Courtesy of:

From Richard Stephen's essay:  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.

Jay KL, Jay TB.  Taboo word fluency and knowledge of slurs and general pejoratives: deconstructing the poverty-of-vocabulary myth.  Language Sciences Volume 52, November 2015, Pages 251–259


A folk assumption about colloquial speech is that taboo words are used because speakers cannot find better words with which to express themselves: because speakers lack vocabulary. A competing possibility is that fluency is fluency regardless of subject matter—that there is no reason to propose a difference in lexicon size and ease of access for taboo as opposed to emotionally-neutral words. In order to test these hypotheses, we compared general verbal fluency via the Controlled Oral Word Association Test (COWAT) with taboo word fluency and animal word fluency in spoken and written formats. Both formats produced positive correlations between COWAT fluency, animal fluency, and taboo word fluency, supporting the fluency-is-fluency hypothesis. In each study, a set of 10 taboo words accounted for 55–60% of all taboo word data. Expressives were generated at higher rates than slurs. There was little sex-related variability in taboo word generation, and, consistent with findings that do not show a sex difference in taboo lexicon size, no overall sex difference in taboo word generation was obtained. Taboo fluency was positively correlated with the Big Five personality traits neuroticism and openness and negatively correlated with agreeableness and conscientiousness. Overall the findings suggest that, with the exception of female-sex-related slurs, taboo expressives and general pejoratives comprise the core of the category of taboo words while slurs tend to occupy the periphery, and the ability to generate taboo language is not an index of overall language poverty.

See also by the same authors:

Jay KL, Jay TB. A child's garden of curses: a gender, historical, and age-related evaluation of the taboo lexicon. Am J Psychol. 2013 Winter;126(4):459-75.


Child swearing is a largely unexplored topic among language researchers, although assumptions about what children know about taboo language form the basis for language standards in many settings. The purpose of the studies presented here is to provide descriptive data about the emergence of adultlike swearing in children; specifically, we aim to document what words children of different ages know and use. Study 1 presents observational data from adults and children (ages 1-12). Study 2 compares perceptions of the inappropriateness of taboo words between adults and older (ages 9-12) and younger (ages 6-8) children. Collectively these data indicate that by the time children enter school they have the rudiments of adult swearing, although children and adults differ in their assessments of the inappropriateness of mild taboo words. Comparisons of these data with estimates obtained in the 1980s allow us to comment on whether swearing habits are changing over the years. Child swearing data can be applied to contemporary social problems and academic issues.

1 comment:

  1. I knew a pediatric department chairman who must have had an extraordinary general vocabulary.