Are People Who Swear More Intelligent?

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Found on Facebook, 2016

Recently, I’ve been seeing variations on a meme floating around my social media feeds. The most common version says something to the effect of “Science says that intelligent people swear more than stupid motherfuckers” (see image) or some variation thereof.  The meme is meant to be a counter claim to the conventional belief about swearing that was voiced by so many of our parents, teachers, and religious leaders whenever we mistakenly uttered a shit! in front of them. “Only dumb people swear,” they’d admonish, or “Smart people know better ways to express themselves than by swearing.” If you were a child like me, such comments were met with an internal eye-roll and a quiet note to self to avoid swearing again when Mom was in earshot.

If it were true — if swearing really was a marker of intelligence — then it would be a wonderful vindication of my ten-year-old potty mouth. But if you’re a regular reader of Skeptoid, I’m sure you already see where this is going.

The claim going around the Internet right now appears to be based on a single study that was published in the journal Language Sciences in December 2015. And the study did not, in any way, shape, or form, support the notion that people who swear are any more intelligent than those who do not swear. In fact, there’s no way the study could have shown that, as it never measured the amount of swearing people do over the course of a day, or an hour, or a conversation.

Instead, what the study did was measure a trait known as “verbal fluency,” or the ability of people to recall and properly express words. In this case, that meant getting the study participants to rattle off as many different swear words as they could within a time frame; then, the participants were asked to recall a list of unrelated words, such as kinds of animals. By measuring how many words the participants could recall in each category, plus doing some related assessment testing, the researchers scored the overall verbal fluency of each participant.

What the researchers ultimately figured out was that people who had better overall verbal fluency were also able to recall and recite a larger variety of different swear words. Or to put it more simply, people who know more words, also know more swear words. To which I would add, “duh!”, since it is absolutely rational to assume the more one learns language overall, the more they will also learn swear words, and thus be more able to rattle off a list of them regardless of how often they, themselves, use them.  And since the study did nothing to assess how nimble these speakers were with their swear words, nor how often they slipped in swear words when they spoke, nor any of the other things besides basic vocabulary upon which one might even assess “actively swearing = more intelligent”, there’s no basis to the claim in the popular meme.

It is true that verbal fluency is considered one aspect of what is sometimes called “linguistic intelligence”, i.e. one’s ability to speak, read, and write with a high level of skill; however, one’s verbal fluency says nothing about ones “intelligence” in the popular sense. And even if we allow that it’s still a form of intelligence, the best we can garner from the science is that “linguistically intelligent people know more swear words.”

So why is everyone so confused? The problem, as is so often the case nowadays, is that the online media machine did a poor job of reporting on this study. Knowing clickbait when they saw it, revenue-starved news sites led with awful headlines like “People Who Curse are Smarter than People Who Don’t“, “Swearing a Lot Means You Are More Intelligent“, and “Science Proves Swearing Means You’re Smarter.” All of those headlines are demonstrably wrong, but I’m sure they got a lot of click-throughs and improved that week’s bottom line. And since a depressing number of people don’t bother to read past the headline anymore, it was a foregone conclusion that those shoddy headlines would become popular knowledge.

This is just one study, and as far as I have found it’s the only study to measure such a thing. Scientists just aren’t that interested in “swearing vs. smarts”. They’re far more interested in things like when people start learning to swear (as young as two or three), why swear words carry the linguistic punch they do (they have a compact efficiency of meaning compared to other words), who swears (extroverts are more likely to swear than introverts), and which swear words are commonly used (80% of swearing consists of the same ten words). There’s also an interesting thread of research on the cathartic effect of swearing and how it may benefit both pain perception and emotional health in some people. Swearing is actually an intellectually interesting issue. Smarts just don’t enter into it.

Of course, the fact that this claim isn’t true doesn’t automatically make our parents and pastors any wiser. All it takes is a little poking to realize that, when our parents and pastors were admonishing us not to swear back in the day, what they were really trying to tell us to be more socially acceptable. The problem, in their view, was that lower class people swear and (in their minds) lower class people were less intelligent; therefore people who wanted to be of a better class needed to avoid speaking like the ignorant masses.  In other words, it was (and remains) a classist attitude that’s trying to police tone and behavior as a means of establishing cultural superiority. Swearing says nothing about one’s relative intelligence.

Sorry, swearing fans, but your insistence on using fuck every three words is not a sign that you’re smart. On the bright side, it doesn’t mean you’re dumb either. And hey, at least you can feel good about showing off your big vocabulary whenever you slip a goddamn or an asshat into a sentence.


*fuck, shit, hell, damn, goddamn, Jesus Christ, ass, oh my god, bitch, and sucks, in case you were wondering, with fuck and shit being the runaway winners.

About Alison Hudson

Alison is a writer and educator living near Ann Arbor, MI. She blogs regularly about skepticism, games, and the transgender experience.
This entry was posted in TV & Media, Urban Legends and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Are People Who Swear More Intelligent?

  1. Gary Foureman says:

    What a wonderful read. Thanks, Alison. I think the key to these memes is to somehow match word number and do it in an equally effective manner. The idiot meme contains only 12 words, but just your remedial interpretation of the article contains 200 at a minimum. So us smart-types have to come up with our own memes. I’m thinking that that a “text-editor” for such memes, such as one with cross outs and insertion of negation (NOT or no way or never, etc.) could counter.

    Here’s my try. Science tells us that Intelligent people swear more than stupid motherfuckers (12 words).
    (Limited) Science tells us that (cross through “intelligent”) people with good fluency know more swear words than people with less fluency (cross through MFs) (20 words but only 18 if I don’t count the cross outs). We could call it something like edit-strafing.

    • Alison Hudson says:

      I’ve seen sites doing similar things already with certain topical memes (there’s a great FB Page called Refutations of Antivax Memes that does so). Maybe Skeptoid needs to get in on that game. 🙂

  2. MBDK says:

    Great article, but you may want to edit “People Who Cure are Smarter than People Who Don’t“. ; P

  3. MBDK says:

    And I need to edit my Emoji as it didn’t fit previous post. ; P

  4. Craig J says:

    I wasn’t aware “sucks” was a swear word…

  5. brad tittle says:

    Larry Niven made fun of the this.. In his “ARM” series, “Bleep” was a swear word. Everyone wandered around saying “bleep” in all the places we use to use other words. In the future time, Bleep was considered a swear word.

  6. Joel Murray says:

    “The problem, in their view, was that lower class people swear and (in their minds) lower class people were less intelligent”
    I know you have a link that shows some correlation to that statement, but this still seems to be a stretch and a little unfair to the older generation.

  7. David Parker says:

    Though scatological words can help convey the emotional intensity of a statement, they are too often used as substitute for other language–that we SHOULD know. The terms have no real descriptive power.

  8. WorkingInACopShop says:

    In reading police reports, I can attest to the fact that stupid people cuss a lot, and they use the same 3 words over and over and over in unimaginative ways on a single rant. I make the assumption that these people are stupid because they get caught doing the same dumb crime over and over and over. I have also noticed that some of these individuals have no idea what the words they use mean. I draw this conclusion from the phrase “pussy ass nigger cracker cop” which I find novel but incomprehensible. There is a singular lack of variety in reports about crime and the subject who commit them and having read them as a profession for 20 years I feel my conclusions are valid without the need for a formal study.

    BTW the function of cursing, swearing, and invective is to serve a social function in substituting verbal violence for physical violence (please see Ashley Montague’s The Anatomy of Swearing). That some people over-use taboo words to excess so that the words lose their punch for emphasis accounts for the phenomena of simultaneous cussing and physical violence so prevalent in the aforementioned reports.

    I don’t see too much of intelligent people cussing in my reports so I can’t offer a reasoned opinion on the relative frequency of cussing in that population. I can say from personal experience, if my mother (a highly intelligent woman) were stressed to the point of using a taboo word from something I did, I was in deep shit.

    • Noah Dillon says:

      Hmmm… I’ve gotta say I can’t agree with the upshot of your anecdotes. I’ve got a master’s and a bachelor’s degree and I get paid to basically think for a living. I also curse constantly. I’m also nonviolent. This hypothesis by Montague sounds interesting, but I can’t imagine that that’s the totality of the purpose for taboo words. Nor can I see how my constant use of F- and S-bombs is making me more violent by diminishing their impact. Doesn’t this ignore a lot of other linguistic context, like tone, set, setting, cultural and subcultural norms, etc. etc?

      • MBDK says:

        Regardless of your education and your job, your comment seems pretty stupid to me. You said, “Nor can I see how my constant use of F- and S-bombs is making me more violent”, but disregarded the very first part of the sentence you object to – “That some people”. Either you are not one of those people he referred to, and as such, exempt from the point of his sentence, or you are the very target he referred to. I suspect you consider yourself to be the former, but for some reason have identified with the latter.

        Furthermore, I can tell you that I frequently use curse words when in the company of friends, but try (not always succeeding) to refrain from them in pubic as a matter of respect. Still, although it is not 100% of all cases, there is NO DOUBT that curse words and violence do have a direct link in the majority of the most emotional of matters.

      • WorkingInACopShop says:

        The anecdotes (thus the use of blue language patterns) relate to a specific limited population, not to any global population. The stressors inherent to law enforcement activity are the context in which I see these particular words used and are certainly not indicative of the use of blue language in the general population.

        As a matter of fact, after 20 years of reading police reports my own vocabulary has become unsuitable for general audiences as a function of habit rather than as a function of emphasis in communication. My mother would be outraged to hear me talking to co-workers.

        BTW constantly cursing may be the stress reliever that keeps you from beating up your computer. Use of blue language does not impute physical violence in any situation from any given person. It’s just nice to have available when you need to burn off a little of that aggravation, especially from innocent inanimate objects that can’t hear anyway.

        • Noah Dillon says:

          Admittedly, from a violent, ignorant oaf, who’s had run-ins with the law:
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKcHIQb2rY0

        • CatLA says:

          As A Brit, I tend to swear more than my husband (after 20 years together, he is still learning new British swear words), and as a childless couple we both swear more than friends and relatives with kids. Perhaps this was why watching ‘The Wire’ would briefly reduce our vocabulary by about 90%. I stiil regularly add ‘bitch’ to otherwise politely-framed requests or questions addressed to my husband.

    • ” I have also noticed that some of these individuals have no idea what the words they use mean.”

      I’ve observed likewise. Example: Anti-Semitic ranters who call Jewish people “Nazis”. When sought an explanation and asked one such young man why he so passionately hated the Jewish businessman whose office he had vandalized, he said, “Because Nazis are so f’ing evil!” Another often misused term among some demographics is “fascist”.

  9. jrachelle says:

    No. Intelligent people don’t swear more than others, you i***t. Find a word!!

  10. david says:

    I don’t think there’s any direct correlation. They could probably do some kind of survey or something, but the biases involved would be hard to get around.

  11. CatLA says:

    ‘…why swear words carry the linguistic punch they do (they have a compact efficiency of meaning compared to other words)…’

    This doesn’t distinguish lexical meaning from pragmatic function. Swear words directed at others do a fine job of insulting or perhaps scaring them, but any lexical meaning they retain (which anyway derives almost invariably either from bodily functions or activities, or from the deity and his offspring) has been subordinated to their pragmatic function. They’re zombie metaphors (dead but still walking), and formulae, which is why they discourage reflection and precision.

  12. J S says:

    “It is true that verbal fluency is considered one aspect of what is sometimes called “linguistic intelligence”, i.e. one’s ability to speak, read, and write with a high level of skill; however, one’s verbal fluency says nothing about ones “intelligence” in the popular sense. And even if we allow that it’s still a form of intelligence, the best we can garner from the science is that ‘linguistically intelligent people know more swear words.’

    I’ll admit that I don’t know much about any of these studies. I will also say that you point out some valid discrepancies. However, in my studies of human intelligence (I have two master’s degrees in this area), verbal fluency says a great deal about overall intelligence. Verbal comprehension skills are one of the best measures of g intelligence, or general intelligence. I guess I’m not sure what you mean by allowing verbal fluency to be considered a form of intelligence. Verbal skills are a huge component of intelligence, and does not exist independently of any other kind, or more accurately, component of intelligence. Intellectual abilities in one area are not mutually exclusive from those of another. So, if someone is “linguistically fluent,” what you’re saying is that he or she has strong overall verbal comprehension skills, and modern intelligence theory indicates that it’s safe to conclude that this individual is intelligent. As a caveat, the ability to exercise self-control to edit foul language from one’s vernacular is a matter of executive functioning skills, which is a different, yet not dissimilar, topic.

    • MBDK says:

      “Intellectual abilities in one area are not mutually exclusive from those of another.”

      It seems a bit odd to me that someone with two masters degrees in the field(s) of human intelligence isn’t familiar with savant syndrome.

  13. Erwin Overdijk says:

    well,don’t take the headline serious, but the idea behind it. I often find that people who cannot handle hard jokes – not swearing but hard satirical, ironical especially sarcastic humor are often narrow minded and cannot think out of the box. They can’t see the humor cause they take every word seriously and put it word for word on a scale. In some extend that also counts for swearing, the whole world swears and you shouldn’t think with that only about people who use three times F**k in a sentence. But somebody who say’s: “This is f**k**g stupid !” or Are you a moron or You are out of mind, or you are a muppet, could be very right and only emphasize their way of thinking.

  14. John says:

    There are certain people that don’t use profanity for religious reasons. They seee it as a sinful act and choose to refrain from such things.

  15. Johnnie says:

    Don’t know who said this”profanity is the effort of a feeble mind trying to express itself with force” But it makes scence. What do you think

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