Science Says if You Swear, You Must Be Smart

"People who swear only do it because they have a limited vocabulary."

I don't know how many times I heard that from the prim-and-proper pearl clutchers when I was a kid. To them, if you said anything stronger than "aw, shucks," you were a boorish vulgarian who drank whiskey and wore boots in the house.

I heard repeatedly that cussers had limited vocabularies, were less educated, and even less intelligent than the people who vowed that lips that said swears would never touch theirs.

Scientific American calls this the "poverty-of-vocabulary hypothesis." (See, they use big words, and I'll bet they swear a lot!)

I even knew people who disapproved if you said "shucks," "darn," or "heck" because God knew what you meant. They believed that anyone who uttered any sort of interjection, no matter how mild, were doomed to "H-E-uhh, you know. . . the downstairs place."

You could never be upset or angry, even if you whacked your thumb with a hammer. You just had to breathe deeply and whisper "Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy," until the pain went away.

These were people who were promptly in bed by 9:00 PM, especially on a school night, because "nothing good ever happened after midnight." They were never fun to be around, but it got worse when they pursed their lips and gave me a disapproving look because I didn't engage the filter between my brain and my mouth.

Joke's on them though: I never had that filter.

I was always annoyed with the swear-scolds because I had a very extensive vocabulary, even at a young age. And because I knew several swear words, I figured mine was bigger than theirs.

In fact, I know several swear words in Dutch, French, German, and Spanish, which gives me an even more extensive vocabulary than the people who limited themselves to a whispered "darn it to heck" whenever they got upset.

Turns out the Upright Puritan Brigade has been wrong about swearing all along.

Scientists have shown on more than one occasion that swearing is actually a sign that a person has a bigger vocabulary, not smaller. And that cussers have more intelligence, not less.

This is the point where you will no doubt say, "I f---ing knew it!" Yes, yes, you're very clever, and the only one who will have thought of this. It certainly won't be mentioned 387 times on my Facebook feed today.

A 2015 study by psychologists from Marist College (official motto: "We've never heard of you either.") found links between how fluent a person is in English and how fluent they are in swearing.

The researchers asked volunteers to name as many words beginning with a certain letter as they could in one minute. So, if they picked the letter 'C,' researchers would count the number of C-words the volunteer could say in 60 seconds. In the second test, they asked the volunteers to recite as many swear words as they could in a minute.

They found that people who scored high on the first test also scored high on the second test; people who scored low on the first test also scored low on the second test.

In other words, if you're good at swearing, you're also smart.

For one thing, people who are good at swearing can swear in different contexts and for different purposes. We can do it to add impact to a sentence, to show emotion, to convey surprise or pain, or to get a laugh. We can correctly swear at the right place and time, using the words correctly based on the situation.

According to Richard Stephens on, "swearing appears to be a feature of language that an articulate speaker can use in order to communicate with maximum effectiveness."

Swearing also helps us cope with pain better. When I played soccer in college, there were many times when I got kicked or tripped, and found myself writhing on the ground in agony, groaning the F-word or S-word through gritted teeth. After several seconds of growled profanity, I was able to resume playing.

Once again, science bears this out. Richard Stephens is a psychology researcher at Keele University in England. He performed a study where volunteers held their hands in ice water for as long as they could while either swearing over and over or repeating a neutral, non-swear word.

He found that people who swore repeatedly were able to withstand the pain longer and said the experience was less intense than the non-swearers.

We cussers have been lied to. We've been told to hide our true nature, to suppress our natural urges, and be forced to fit into someone else's idea of acceptability. But we don't have to anymore.

We're not the slope-foreheaded mouth breathers they think we are. We don't point, grunt, and swear to express ourselves. My fellow cussers, we don't have to be slandered just because some people are uncomfortable with coarse language, do we?

You're fudgin' right we don't!

Photo credit: Myresa Hurst (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

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