The Science of Swearing

This is a photo of punctuation marks and symbols that represent swear words.

Why would a psychological scientist study swearing? Expertise in such an area has different practical significance inside and outside the community of psychological science. Outside the scientific community,

Timothy Jay

Timothy Jay

expertise on taboo language is justification for frequent consultation about contemporary issues that are perennial: Is swearing harmful? Should children be allowed to swear? Is our swearing getting worse? One of us has been interviewed over 3,000 times by various media with respect to the questions above, as well as those about the use of taboo words in television, advertising, professional sports, radio, music, and film. In addition to consultation with mass media, expert testimony has been needed in cases involving sexual harassment, fighting words, picket-line speech, disturbing the peace, and contempt of court cases.

Considering the persistent need for an expert to consult for the above issues, it is odd that swearing expertise is weighted so differently when swearing is viewed from the perspective of psychological science. While hundreds of papers have been written about swearing since the early 1900s, they tend to originate from fields outside of psychology such as sociology, linguistics, and anthropology. When swearing is a part of psychological research, it is rarely an end in itself.

Kristin Janschewitz

Kristin Janschewitz

It is far more common to see strong offensive words used as emotionally arousing stimuli — tools to study the effect of emotion on mental processes such as attention and memory.

Why the public-versus-science disconnect? Is swearing, as a behavior, outside the scope of what a psychological scientist ought to study? Because swearing is influenced so strongly by variables that can be quantified at the individual level, psychological scientists (more than linguists, anthropologists, and sociologists) have the best training to answer questions about it. Another explanation for the relative lack of emphasis on this topic is the orientation of psychological science to processes (e.g., memory) rather than life domains (e.g., leisure activities), a problem described by Paul Rozin. Arguably, a more domain-centered approach to psychological study would better accommodate topics such as swearing and other taboo behaviors.

Regardless of the reason for the relative lack of emphasis on swearing research per se inside psychological science, there is still a strong demand from outside the scientific community for explanations of swearing and associated phenomena. To give the reader a sense of the work that we do as psychological scientists who study swearing, let’s consider some of the common questions we’re asked about swearing.

Is swearing problematic or harmful?

Courts presume harm from speech in cases involving discrimination or sexual harassment. The original justification for our obscenity laws was predicated on an unfounded assumption that speech can deprave or corrupt children, but there is little (if any) social-science data demonstrating that a word in and of itself causes harm. A closely related problem is the manner in which harm has been defined — harm is most commonly framed in terms of standards and sensibilities such as religious values or sexual mores. Rarely are there attempts to quantify harm in terms of objectively measurable symptoms (e.g., sleep disorder, anxiety). Psychological scientists could certainly make a systematic effort to establish behavioral outcomes of swearing.

Swearing can occur with any emotion and yield positive or negative outcomes. Our work so far suggests that most uses of swear words are not problematic. We know this because we have recorded over 10,000 episodes of public swearing by children and adults, and rarely have we witnessed negative consequences. We have never seen public swearing lead to physical violence. Most public uses of taboo words are not in anger; they are innocuous or produce positive consequences (e.g., humor elicitation). No descriptive data are available about swearing in private settings, however, so more work needs to be done in that area.

Therefore, instead of thinking of swearing as uniformly harmful or morally wrong, more meaningful information about swearing can be obtained by asking what communication goals swearing achieves. Swear words can achieve a number of outcomes, as when used positively for joking or storytelling, stress management, fitting in with the crowd, or as a substitute for physical aggression. Recent work by Stephens et al. even shows that swearing is associated with enhanced pain tolerance. This finding suggests swearing has a cathartic effect, which many of us may have personally experienced in frustration or in response to pain. Despite this empirical evidence, the positive consequences of swearing are commonly disregarded in the media. Here is an opportunity for psychological scientists to help inform the media and policymakers by clearly describing the range of outcomes of swearing, including the benefits.

Is it bad for children to hear or say swear words?

The harm question for adult swearing applies to issues such as verbal abuse, sexual harassment, and discrimination. When children enter the picture, offensive language becomes a problem for parents and a basis for censorship in media and educational settings. Considering the ubiquity of this problem, it is interesting that psychology textbooks do not address the emergence of this behavior in the context of development or language learning.

Parents often wonder if this behavior is normal and how they should respond to it. Our data show that swearing emerges by age two and becomes adult-like by ages 11 or 12. By the time children enter school, they have a working vocabulary of 30-40 offensive words. We have yet to determine what children know about the meanings of the words they use. We do know that younger children are likely to use milder offensive words than older children and adults, whose lexica may include more strongly offensive terms and words with more nuanced social and cultural meanings. We are currently collecting data to better understand the development of the child’s swearing lexicon.

We do not know exactly how children learn swear words, although this learning is an inevitable part of language learning, and it begins early in life. Whether or not children (and adults) swear, we know that they do acquire a contextually-bound swearing etiquette — the appropriate ‘who, what, where, and when’ of swearing. This etiquette determines the difference between amusing and insulting and needs to be studied further. Through interview data, we know that young adults report to have learned these words from parents, peers, and siblings, not from mass media.

Considering that the consequences of children’s exposure to swear words are frequently cited as the basis for censorship, psychological scientists should make an effort to describe the normal course of the development of a child’s swearing lexicon and etiquette. Is it important to attempt to censor children from language they already know? While psychological scientists themselves do not establish language standards, they can provide scientific data about what is normal to inform this debate.

Has swearing become more frequent in recent years?

This is a very common question, and it’s a tough one to answer because we have no comprehensive, reliable baseline frequency data prior to the 1970s for comparison purposes. It is true that we are exposed to more forms of swearing since the inception of satellite radio, cable television, and the Internet, but that does not mean the average person is swearing more frequently. In our recent frequency count, a greater proportion of our data comes from women (the reduction of a once large gender difference). We interpret this finding as reflecting a greater proportion of women in public (e.g., many more women on college campuses) rather than a coarsening of women. Our forthcoming research also indicates that the most frequently recorded taboo words have remained fairly stable over the past 30 years. The Anglo-Saxon words we say are hundreds of years old, and most of the historically offensive sexual references are still at the top of the offensiveness list; they have not been dislodged by modern slang. Frequency data must be periodically collected to answer questions about trends in swearing over time.

Thus, our data do not indicate that our culture is getting “worse” with respect to swearing. When this question arises, we also frequently fail to acknowledge the impact of recently-enacted laws that penalize offensive language, such as sexual harassment and discrimination laws. Workplace surveillance of telephone and email conversations also curbs our use of taboo language.

Do all people swear?

We can answer this question by saying that all competent English speakers learn how to swear in English. Swearing generally draws from a pool of 10 expressions and occurs at a rate of about 0.5 percent of one’s daily word output. However, it is not informative to think of how an average person swears: Contextual, personality, and even physiological variables are critical for predicting how swearing will occur. While swearing crosses socioeconomic statuses and age ranges and persists across the lifespan, it is more common among adolescents and more frequent among men. Inappropriate swearing can be observed in frontal lobe damage, Tourette’s disorder, and aphasia.

Swearing is positively correlated with extraversion and is a defining feature of a Type A personality. It is negatively correlated with conscientiousness, agreeableness, sexual anxiety, and religiosity. These relationships are complicated by the range of meanings within the diverse group of taboo words. Some religious people might eschew profanities (religious terms), but they may have fewer reservations about offensive sexual terms that the sexually anxious would avoid. We have yet to systematically study swearing with respect to variables such as impulsivity or psychiatric conditions, (e.g., schizophrenia and bipolar disorder). These may be fruitful avenues along which to investigate the neural basis of emotion and self-control.

Taboo words occupy a unique place in language because once learned, their use is heavily context driven. While we have descriptive data about frequency and self reports about offensiveness and other linguistic variables, these data tend to come from samples that overrepresent young, White, middle-class Americans. A much wider and more diverse sample is needed to better characterize the use of taboo language to more accurately answer all of the questions here.

References and Further Reading:

Janschewitz, K. (2008). Taboo, emotionally-valenced, and emotionally-neutral word norms. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, & Computers, 40, 1065-1074.

Jay, T.B. (2009). The utility and ubiquity of taboo words. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4, 153–161.

Jay, T.B. (2009). Do offensive words harm people? Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 15, 81-101.

Jay, T.B., & Janschewitz, K. (2008). The pragmatics of swearing. Journal of Politeness Research: Language, Behavior, Culture, 4, 267-288.

Mehl, M., Vazire, S., Ramirez-Esparza, N., Statcher, R., & Pennebaker, J. (2007). Are women really more talkative than men? Science, 317, 82-82.

Rozin, P. (2006). Domain denigration and process preference in academic psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 365-376.

Stephens, R., Atkins, J., & Kingston, A. (2009). Swearing as a response to pain. NeuroReport, 20, 1956-160.

Observer Vol.25, No.5 May/June, 2012

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Amazingly interesting.

There are some new swear words in the younger generation. Probably they define a loose, age-specific, “cloud grouping.” What do you think about “new” swear words?

My father, a tee-totling christian could swear louder and longer than anyone I knew… without using a swear-word. I.e. “carn-sarn-nit,” “yellow-bellied-wood-pecker,” “son-of-a-biscuit-eater,” “crim-a-nelly,” on and on. Hmm. We knew he was swearing, he knew he was swearing.

For this research, I think it is important to understand, not only the meaning of the word, but also the sound of it. The shape and movement words bring into our minds can affect the way we feel about it. Many people can easily become desensitized to the words, whereas others might cringe to them the same way they cringe to certain undesirable sounds.

It would be an interesting study to see the effects of different sounds on the brain and its relation to language.

Has there ever been a study of honesty versus swearing? I was recently told by an acquaintance that people who swear are more honest. I don’t see how there could be a correlation, but she insists it was studied and its true.

Biased article. The small section (second to last paragraph) showng negative effects of swearing is worded awkwardly, veiling the significance. The descriptive “sexual anxiety” sounds negative, whereas “modest” or “sexual restraint” frame the issue in a better light. If these liberals were discussing venerial disease, or perhaps rape, such “anxiety” would be a good thing. That section also shows the profane are less agreeable and conscientious, but these major issues are not dwelt upon, whereas the rest of the article speaks in favor of potty-mouth, only to mention that no real scientific studies confirm such, in most cases. So why the propoganda? …because human dysfunction is more profitable for today’s industry.

So you mentioned you do not know where children learn swear words?? Are you serious? At home for most of them. The others learn from kids when they get to school. Did you not have kids and learn this? lol

Research may show that the person swearing is more trustworthy, but I would like to see the study on intelligence in those who swear a blue streak. Speaking for myself, I lose a great deal of respect for a person that uses that type of language when there are so many other words that would work much better. Personally, I find it less trustworthy, also.

If there is a study were can we view it or read there findings? I find this hard to believe.

I found this article in a Google search. I was trying to find the supposed study showing how people who swear tend to be more trust worthy. Haven’t found it yet but I will continue to look. I do see where some truth would come from it. Not so much as oh this person cusses like a sailor there for he/she won’t steal my purse, but more from a standpoint of I can trust them to tell me if these pants make my butt look big. Simply because people who tend to swear also tend not to care about what others think about them so therefore they have less of reason to tell white lies.

This is an interesting article, though I started to question the research design after reading, “…we have recorded over 10,000 episodes of public swearing by children and adults, and rarely have we witnessed negative consequences. We have never seen public swearing lead to physical violence.”

Having incited such violence personally, using utterances primarily constructed with swear words, and having witnessed the same in close proximity on more occasions than I am proud to admit, it strikes me as though the research may have had biases that tainted the results.

Swearing at Disney world be expected to result in fewer negative outcomes than f-bombs tossed strategically at a bar, a ballgame, or family reunion.

For as long as I remember, I have considered that folks who use swearwords had not developed sufficient vocabulary to say what they had in mind.

Is there ANYWHERE conservative trolls will NOT go? This was an article clearly describing explorations into the social mechanics of the use of profanity and it consequences, with what was obviously an exhortation for more investigation into the phenomenon, not liberal propaganda(note how this word is spelled correctly).
Tomorrow’s child is without a doubt attempting to make readers feel they are somehow remiss to even have read this, in a most puerile, opinionated way that, given even the misspelling of the words “venereal” and “propaganda” achieve little but generate disdain for a squandered intellect.
All that, without a single profanity. And I haven’t even begun to describe his family tree.
Terrific article. Needs expansion.
Try to ignore the trolls. Leave those clodhoppers to me.

well about the swearing vs honesty thing if swearing has a direct correlation to a type A personality one of the defining traits of a type A personality is honesty

I totally disagree with this finding, if it really is a finding. Half the time the person swearing is swearing because they are covering up a lie, or trying to prove a point that is unrealistic. I notice that people tend to swear just to relieve anxiety and stress. Believe me, my daughter swears like a sailor and so did one of my sisters. I doesn’t matter if you swear or not, honesty is in the person’s upbringing and natural character in my opinion. To heck with Behavioral Studies.

I spent 45 years in engineering on the shop floor where swearing was the norm, I never got used to it. I compared it to picking your nose in public, i.e. your not doing anybody any harm, but it is bad manners and repulsive.
I havn’t observed any relationship between IQ, honesty, temper or manners in the frequency of swearing. I don’t get that it helps someone to stand pain as some of the biggest babies (adults) would come out with a string of cursing at the slightest twinge.
It will probably become socially unacceptable though time. As well as the example above, if the words were substituted with a loud hand clap, I think that would have a similar effect. i.e. a nuisance and unnecessary.
Sorry to be a prig, but I’m right!

Given that, of the 2 words seen as the most obscene in English – 1 dates back to at least 1290 and the other to around 1470, I don’t see swearing being replaced by hand clapping anytime soon. As these two words are between 3 and 4 times older than the US they clearly fulfil some type of linguistic need, which must be worthy of a level of attention above the tut-tuttery and value judgements of some of the posters here. The earliest recorded use of the c-word was a street name in Oxford, Gropec@&£ Lane. This was apparently a commonly used street name in medieval England. Apparently, so named because of the prostitution which was rife. This name was actively used until Victorian times when use of what they saw as obscene language came to be frowned upon in polite society – the source of much of our current attitudes towards swearing, not to mention their legacy of sexual hypocrisy which was partially responsible for this stance on linguistic mores . There were at least 3 streets of this name in London, one of which was euphemistically renamed as Threadneedle Street – now the location of the Bank of England. More research on this rich and interesting linguistic heritage and the role that it seems to have played in human history would seem to be more than justified.

Matt Van Wagner, love your comment.

As far as exploiting my limited vocabulary, that’s taurine fecal matter!
According to HBO dramas, ancient Rome and the American frontier West were scenes of far more potty-mouth than contemporary society.
In France, higher class women fart at the dinner table, giggle, and say, “Je m’excuse!”, say ‘merde’ without batting an eye; near as i can tell, the filthiest expletive one can utter is ‘punaise’ meaning ‘gnats’ or bedbug… although ‘putard’ [prostitute] and its slang derivative ‘petang’ [whore] may be a close second. [this information is several decades dated]
I suspect the use of Anglo-Saxon rooted vocabulary is directly related to the social mores of particular times and places, more than any intrinsic meaning or sound of the words themselves…
Cheese and crackers, got all muddy! Squeamish people probably can’t help themselves – that’s just the way they were raised!

My sister-in-law is a devout christian and considered the “f”g-word, or effg….vile and disgusting and refused to come to our home after one such incident. I was frustrated with the thoughtless of the people above us (rented apartment (flat)stomping up and down, the young 20-someting daughter who should have been living on her own,)
and turned to hubby and bottom line mentioned those f*g tenants, a woman, her daughter and the woman’ grandmother.
SIL strode upstairs and read the three women, the riot act.
She barely tolerates s*t, damn, hell from my hubby.

I don’t see anything wrong cursing once in a while to show my frustration and the pain I suffer from. She LOATHES it. Having read a Toronto Star, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, article from Reuters by Star Reporter, Katelyn Verstaten, I thought, ‘Ah, someone who feels the way I do. If my SIL has a rather irrational approach to a famly member getting easily and emotionally reactive by swearing, then pehaps it is SHE who needs he counseling.

@Dr. Sharlene Peters: What I find interesting is you say “My father, a tee-totling christian could swear louder and longer than anyone I knew… without using a swear-word. I.e. “carn-sarn-nit,” “yellow-bellied-wood-pecker,” “son-of-a-biscuit-eater,” “crim-a-nelly,” on and on. Hmm. We knew he was swearing, he knew he was swearing”.

What I proffer is that a child of any age wouldn’t say “carn-sarn-it” (or any of those other words you said your father used) to a friend for shock value, or to a parent to show rebellion, but WOULD use the “F” word for the same purpose. So if a word doesn’t bring forth shock, is not profane or obscene, then it’s not swearing. At least IMHO.

Re: some of the comments, I can swear up a storm when I’m angry but I also swear in everyday speech. I do have bipolar disorder so there might be some impulse control issues. And on a question of intelligence, I don’t believe that has anything to do with it. I am working towards finishing my M.S. and then my PhD and I can make a sailor blush if I were so inclined. I promise you there are plenty of intelligent people who swear on a regular basis.

So science doesn’t really have a lot to do with what lay people believe. It is systematic. Orderly. Not impulsive. It is not speculation. It is just like you learned in school–do some research on the topic you are targeting, forming a hypothesis, designing an experiment to test that hypothesis, then doing it and finally analyzing the data, drawing a conclusion and writing up your findings. So FairBairn– you say people who swear when they are hurt are babies. The swearing helps bear the pain. Remember the part where the author mentioned that children start this fairly young? They don’t use words that are as strong as older people, but I’m sure you’ve seen a kid say “Shoot!” when she’s stubbed her toe. It’s cathartic. Applying “common sense”… well, yeah, no, that’s problematic for a number of reasons.

Dear right wing people who do not like swearing:

1. Not liking something does not make it go away.

2. Not liking swearing does not make it untrue that there is a correlation between wearing and honesty.

3. Today’s world, apparently, has less swearing than the world in the past, not more. Read the article: the authors say “…our data do not indicate that our culture is getting “worse” with respect to swearing”.

4. “To heck with Behavioral Studies”? Really? Have you no understanding at all of the concept of science, or of its methodology?

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