Is Swearing a Sign of a Limited Vocabulary?
Swearing isn’t a sign of a limited vocabulary, or inability to articulate. Generally, the more words people know, the more swear words they know.
Or rather, the more word fluency a person has, the more swear words they can conjure up. How often a person swears didn’t seem to be a factor… although the use of sexist slurs was.
The bottom line: It is the variety of swear words a person uses, not just the frequency with which a person swears, that is an indicator of intelligence (or more specifically, an indicator of word fluency specifically). See: “Taboo word fluency and knowledge of slurs and general pejoratives: deconstructing the poverty-of-vocabulary myth“. Sciencedirect.com. Retrieved Jan 17, 2016.
Taboo Word Fluency: Swear Frequency Versus Swear Variety
A recent study Taboo word fluency and knowledge of slurs and general pejoratives: deconstructing the poverty-of-vocabulary myth, showed data suggesting that the frequency at which a person swears is not an indication of their vocabulary or ability to articulate, but that the variety of the swear words they use is.
In other words, data shows that those with bigger vocabularies tend to use a wider array of swear words too (taboo words including general pejoratives and slurs). Data does not show a correlation between the frequency with which a person swears and word fluency, but it does show a clear correlation between swear variety and word fluency.
So the idea that “swearing is a sign of a weak vocabulary” seems to be a myth (i’m sure Eminem agrees).
The One Exception: People Who Use Sexist Taboo Words
In the study, sex-related slurs (slurs about gender) were the only type of taboo language studied that correlated to a poor vocabulary. From this study, one could conclude that on some level sexism (not swearing) is an indicator of a small vocabulary, or that a small vocabulary is an indicator of gender bias. With this in mind, we should remember that correlation doesn’t imply causation.
A video about the study that showed that people who use a wider variety of swear words have a larger vocabulary.
TIP: As noted above, this information comes from a study designed to examine word fluency and taboo word use. The study Taboo word fluency and knowledge of slurs and general pejoratives: deconstructing the poverty-of-vocabulary myth was published in Language Sciences Volume 52, November 2015, Pages 251–259 Slurs.
The Language Sciences Study on Word Fluency and Taboo Words
The study compared Taboo word fluency to animal word fluency found:
- Taboo word fluency is correlated with general fluency.
- Taboo words comprise pejoratives and slurs.
- Taboo fluency is correlated with neuroticism and openness.
How the Taboo Word Fluency Study Worked
The study looked at both men and women between the ages of 18 and 22. Participants had to say as many swear words as they could think of in 60 seconds (any pairing of related words that resulted in a taboo word), followed by another 60 seconds of listing animal names.
The Findings of the Taboo Word Study
The study showed a positive correlation between a person’s taboo word fluency, general word fluency, and general knowledge. The data did not suggest that frequency of swear words used, compared to non-swear words, indicated general word fluency or knowledge.
Given this, and what we know from past studies, we can say that fluency of swear words and not frequency of swear words is the primary indicator of vocabulary and ability to articulate.
Do Those Who Swear More Have Bigger Vocabularies? Or, Are People Who Swear More Articulate?
People who swear more are not more articulate; people who swear more do not have larger vocabularies. The study showed that people who knew a larger variety of swear words were more articulate and had wider vocabularies in general.
So for clarification headlines that say “people who swear more are smarter” are misleading. At the core, this is just a measure of word fluency and a lack of correlation between taboo words and word fluency.
A NSFW video showing an example of swearing often and using a large vocabulary. A study showed Eminem used 8,818 unique words in his lyrics; Shakespeare used 5,170 on average in his plays and poems. Eminem strings words together into taboo phrases in the same way people were asked to do in the study.
Do People Who Use a Single Swear Word More Have a Smaller Vocabulary?
One can assume that repeated use of the same word, whether a swear word or not, would be an indication of a small vocabulary, and this appears to be correct. The critical factor is the variety of words used and the more extensive the word knowledge exhibited, not whether a word is classified as being taboo that matters.
Bottom line: Unless you are using your grey matter to store sexist slurs, the ability to generate taboo language is not in itself an index of overall language poverty.