Where once the use of profanities would appal right-thinking members of society, nowadays words like fuck, shit and bollocks are practically mother’s milk to many of us. A recent study in the UK found that people are more comfortable with swearing on television than they used to be, for example. And research in the US indicates that people are increasingly likely to use bad language at work.
So in honour of our wonderfully creative and filthy lexicon, here are some fascinating facts about swearing – and, yes, this article contains lots of explicit references.
1) Some swearers are smarter than others
A popular “fact” doing the rounds is that people who swear are more intelligent and have larger vocabularies. Sadly, this is not quite accurate. It misreads a study that demonstrated that people who performed well on tests of verbal fluency – such as “name as many words as you can starting with the letter ‘s’” – also tended to do well when asked how many swear words they could name.
The conclusion was that although many a teacher and parent have argued that swearing is indicative of a lesser vocabulary, the ability to be creative with your swearing is actually another measure of verbal fluency. Crucially, however, it’s not how much you swear but how creatively you swear that counts.
So if you are a fucking person who fucking says the fucking word fuck between every fucking word, your vocabulary is probably quite limited because you’re relying on the same word over and over. If you are the type of person who variably refers to someone they don’t like as a cock-munch or a piss-ass twat-wank, your general verbal fluency is probably good even though you are really quite rude.
2) Who you swear at counts
Swearing is also considered more offensive the wider the gap in status between speaker and listener. If an entry-level employee was to swear at their chief executive, or if Michael Gove was to swear at Theresa May, that would be viewed as worse than if two students swore at each other.
This can also be used to positive effect, however, promoting social cohesion by signalling that the swearer does not believe the difference in status to be that large. My line manager has yet to address me as “Dr fucking Nordmann” but if it ever happens I’ve decided to take it as a sign that I’m on the right track.
3) Swear words sound sweary
It is sometimes said that “proper” languages are arbitrary, meaning there should be no relationship between the sound of the words and their meanings. Yet the sounds we use turn out to be a lot less arbitrary than we used to think. Lots of words in English that refer to “light” start with “gl”, such as “glitter”, “glimmer” and “gloss”. This is known as sound symbolism.
Not only do these patterns exist but we’re very good at picking up on them even if we’re not aware of it – children are faster to learn new words if they’re symbolic and tend to learn them at a younger age.
The bad news for parents trying to keep their kids’ mouths clean is that swear words exhibit sound symbolism. They tend to have harsh aggressive sounds to match their harsh aggressive meanings. This means we don’t actually have to know the meaning of a word to know it’s “bad”.
Sound symbolism also provides one explanation for why some swear words don’t survive. In Chaucerian English, “swyve” was a crass term meaning “to copulate with”. To quote The Canterbury Tales, for instance, “If that I may, yon wenche wil I swyve”. One reason why “swyve” lost its place in our dirty lexicon is likely to be that “give it a good swyve” sounds like something Mary Berry would ask you to do on the Great British Bake Off.
4) Men’s mouths are pottier
Women swear less than men and when they do swear they use milder swear words. Since many swear words refer to sex and sexuality, it is suggested that women use these words less than men because if they use words that refer to sex casually, it implies they think the act of sex is a casual matter.
If so, the asymmetry of expectation for men and women for the act of having sex has spread to our use of language and the vocabulary we have available. The clearest example is that there is no male equivalent for the word “slut”.
5) Princes swear less than paupers … sort of
Social class is predictive of the frequency of swearing. An investigation of the British National Corpus, a massive collection of written and spoken English from a wide range of sources, found that lower working class speakers swore significantly more than speakers from higher social classes.
A later study added nuance to this, however. Although “bloody”, “bugger” and “fuck” are used approximately twice as often by those from the lowest social class – the upper middle class, famously led by BBC radio journalist Jim Naughtie, are the most common users of the profane word for female genitalia that rhymes with Jeremy Hunt –– yes, cunt. Thankfully, they only rarely use it during live radio broadcasts.