Misconceptions and stereotypes about the function and purpose of swearing, and assumptions are often made about people who swear frequently – that they do so because of an underdeveloped vocabulary for instance, or that they are dishonest and aggressive. But are these assumptions actually borne out by the science?

(Due to the requirements of the format, any swearwords in this article will be rendered with asterisks, so I will leave it to the foul-mouthed among you to fill in the blanks.)

One assumption is that swearwords are used by people who cannot find a ‘better’ word to use, and thus that swearing indicates someone with a poor vocabulary. But does it?

Researchers asked study participants to name as many words as possible that either began with a specified letter, were the names of animals, or were swear words -- the idea being to test vocabulary size for different categories of words. They found that verbal fluency in the swear word category was positively correlated with fluency in the other categories: i.e., that people who know a lot of swear words also know a lot of other words. The conclusion drawn was that while non-taboo words might achieve greater nuance in conversation, taboo words have a different ‘goal’ – that of expressing emotional intensity, which is unrelated to vocabulary size. So there is no real reason to assume that people use swear words because they can’t think of anything more specific – otherwise we’d all be using words like ‘f***’ and ‘b*****’ instead of ‘er’ or ‘um’.

Wooden sculpture of a hand with middle finger raised

Research has also been done to discover any potential links between swearing and dishonesty. Study participants were assessed using a ‘lie scale’, where they were asked questions it would not be credible to truthfully answer with a ‘yes’, such as “Are all your habits good and desirable?”. This gave researchers a sense of individuals’ propensity to tell lies. The same participants were also asked to report how often they used swear words. It was found that participants who lied less also reported a higher usage of swear words. However, this does beg the question of whether the people who lied more about having desirable habits also lied about not swearing! Other research has drawn the opposite conclusion: that a higher frequency of swearing is linked to a higher likelihood of lying and/or cheating. So, to conclude – we’re not really sure yet.

Another assumption about swearing is that it is an inherently aggressive act – but can swearing also serve a self-protective function? Consider the following scenario: you hit your head on a ceiling beam or slam your finger in a car door. The automatically generated expletives pouring from your mouth might serve a purpose beyond merely expressing frustration. Research has found that swearing can actually serve a pain-relieving function, and that this effect is more pronounced in people who swear less often – almost like developing a tolerance to pain medication. The effect has even been shown to be beneficial for soothing emotional pain caused by social exclusion.

Research in this fascinating area is ongoing, so it is likely we will soon learn more about the effects of our favourite or not-so-favourite four letter words. Since all words are essentially tools used for communication, consider what you might pull from your vocabulary ’tool box’ on a daily basis. On occasion you might need something fiddly and obscure in purpose for delicate work, but sometimes only a f***ing hammer will do.


Featured photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

Article photo by Nik on Unsplash