I keep running into this, both at home, taking my kids to school, online in various memes and clickbaits, and even where I work: Science says that intelligent people swear more than dumb people. The claim is meant to be subversive to the idea so many of our elders, parents, teachers, etc of “only dumb people swear”.
If such a claim was true it would mean that every military and navy person I have ever met was a certifiable genius, in league with Einstein and Hawking, and would be a great vindication to many people I know. People who know me, and listen to my podcasts, might know where I am headed with this…and I’ll admit that I actually let this one slide, with a kind of important reason; mostly it isn’t worth arguing over, but also because I don’t think swearing makes you a bad person. It does REALLY irk me how this information is misused or as a justification when someone has, in my opinion, said some things they really shouldn’t have and are trying to cover their ass about it. Sort of a “Yeah I said Cunt nugget. Only stupid people don’t swear. Are you stupid?”
The claim is based on a single study published in the Journal of Language Sciences in December of 2015. And it did not, in any way, make any claim that people who swear more are smarter. The study wasn’t even really about that, it was just a byproduct. Marist College also tried to do their own study but they just came out with a bastardized test that didn’t even really test verbal fluency.
The study was about a function of intelligence known as “verbal fluency”, or the ability of people to be able to recall and correctly use words. So, in this study that meant the participants had to quickly look at a list of animals, then recite as many swear words as they could within a set time, and then were asked to recall the list of animals. By measuring how many animals the people could recall (and they did a bunch of different lists and recall measures), the researchers could score the verbal fluency of each person.
What the testers discovered was that the people who had a greater verbal fluency score were ALSO able to recall a larger variety of swearwords.
So what, you ask. That sounds like smarter people know more swear words.
To put it in the context of the test it really means that people who know more words…know more swear words..
BUT, and this is very important; the study did nothing to show HOW, WHEN, or how OFTEN the swearwords were used. So, a Cambridge Don, versed in 14 hundred years of literature might know every permutation of the word “fuck” but who never use it outside the world of academia would be “verbally fluent”.
Now, verbal fluency is considered a portion of “linguistic intelligence”, or the demonstrable ability to speak, read, and write proficiently. Yet, the ability to be verbose doesn’t affect the popular concepts of “intelligence”. And even fi it was, all we can get from this study is “Linguistically intelligent people KNOW more swearwords.”
Why is this going around the world as the gospel truth? Clickbait. Most people swear at some point in the day, and reading a headline from a news source that’s starved for revenue that has “People who Curse are Smarter Than People Who Don’t” really pads the bottom line. And since most people don’t bother to read past the headline, or to look at the source themselves, it was almost an alchemical reaction that would become guaranteed popular knowledge.
So far these are the only two studies I have found that measure swearing. Apparently scientists aren’t interested in if someone who swears is actually smarter. They are more interested in when people start to swear (around three, though younger in my house), why swearwords jolt us the way they do (it’s called “compact efficiency”, and it’s related more to emotions than intelligence), who swears (extroverts swear more), and which swear words are used the most (80% of swearing involves the same ten words). Scientists are more interested in why swearing changes our pain perception and benefits some peoples emotional health. Swearing is an interesting intellectual issue. Intelligence just isn’t a factor.
This doesn’t mean that our grandparents or the baby boomers are great sages. What they were really trying to teach us was to be more socially acceptable. In some cases it was meant in a more classist sense, and the idea that uneducated people were inferior and this showed by their swearing (and I use my own anecdotal evidence in this 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), but it was also an instruction that our words carried a certain weight to them and are context appropriate. The reason was respect. Respect for your audience and respect for anyone who may overhear you. 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.
So, apologies to the potty mouths out there. The fact you can throw around fuck every other word isn’t a sign you are a mother fucking genius. But it doesn’t mean you are a dumb fuck, either. Peace out, fucktards.