But the study by psychologists Kristin Jay of Marist College and Timothy Jay of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts suggests that at least one of these assumptions is wrong.
The researchers carried out three different studies to test how “general verbal fluency” – demonstrated in the study by people’s ability to come up with a long list of words starting with the letters “a,” “f,” and “s” -- correlated with their ability to list "taboo words," or common curses and slurs. As a control, they also had the test-takers list as many words related to animals as possible.
In the first study, they had participants speak all these words. In the second, they had them write them down. And in the third study, they had them write out the words again, but also take a personality test.
Overall, they found that people generally had the easiest time thinking of animal words, followed by the “a, f, s” test. People tended to think of far fewer taboo words overall, and there wasn't a significant difference between men and women, as the chart below shows.
But their findings also revealed that those who were able to think of more animal words and more words beginning with “a,” “f,” or “s” were also able to think of more taboo words. And those who thought of fewer words in the first two categories also thought of fewer in the third.
These findings suggest the idea that “fluency is fluency,” as the researchers write. People who could recall a lot of bad words also tended to be more eloquent in general. In other words, swearing is not necessarily a sign that a person has a limited vocabulary or can’t think of anything better to say.
So what is it a sign of? The researchers don’t say definitively, but their personality test sheds some light on the question. In the third study, they gave their subjects the so-called “Big Five Inventory” test commonly used by psychologists, which measures five personality traits – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
They found that those who cursed more showed more neuroticism (a tendency toward anger, anxiety and depression) and openness to new experience as personality traits. They were also less agreeable, meaning they valued getting along with other less, and less conscientious, meaning they had lower levels of self-discipline. Unlike some previous studies, they didn’t find a relationship with how religious people were.
According to the researchers, the findings suggest that swearing is mostly a vehicle for expressing strong emotion – anger, frustration, derogation, surprise and elation -- among people who care less about who they might offend. Cursing is an intense, succinct and powerful way of expressing yourself, even if some people find it unpleasant.
And in order to use bad words appropriately, people still have to understand nuanced distinctions about language, the paper says. As such, cursing isn’t a sign of a limited vocabulary at all. Past research has shown that when people are really at a loss for words, they tend to say things like “er” or “um,” rather than cursing. Other studies have shown that college students are more likely to use curse words, and that this group tends to have a larger vocabulary than the population in general.
“A voluminous taboo lexicon may better be considered an indicator of healthy verbal abilities rather than a cover for their deficiencies,” the researchers write.
This idea may be growing in popularity among psychologists and linguists, but it’s still pretty limited in popular culture. As the study says, past literature has shown that people also tend to have more negative views about those that swear.
So before you start cursing up a storm, take note that not everyone will be impressed with your expansive vocabulary.