“Being fluent at swearing is a sign of healthy verbal ability”

Richard Stephens, who won an Ig Nobel Prize for his research on swearing, writes about a new discovery. His essay, in BPS Research Digest, has the headline “Being fluent at swearing is a sign of healthy verbal ability“. It says:

“there remains a very commonly held belief that swearing is a sign of inarticulateness and low IQ – something that the US-based psychologists Kristin and Timothy Jay set out to challenge in new research published in Language Sciences. At the heart of the “poverty of vocabulary” explanation for swearing is the assumption that people swear because they lack the intellectual capacity or motivation to bring to mind a more suitable expression. It’s the idea that people swear as a substitute for more reasoned and articulate speech. The Jays ran a simple yet ingenious study to test one specific aspect of this popular theory: are people who are more fluent in swear words less fluent in other forms of vocabulary?”

The new study is called “Taboo word fluency and knowledge of slurs and general pejoratives: deconstructing the poverty-of-vocabulary myth” [Language Sciences, vol. 52 2015, pp. 251–259].


Richard Stephens is one of the psychologists acknowledged in the text as having advised the authors. The 2010 Ig Nobel Prize for psychology was awarded to Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston of Keele University, for confirming the widely held belief that swearing relieves pain. That research is documented in the study “Swearing as a Response to Pain,” published in the journal Neuroreport [vol. 20 , no. 12, 2009, pp. 1056-60].

BONUS: One of the monographs Richard Stephens mentions in his essay is McEnerny and Xiao’s beloved “Swearing in Modern British English: The Case of Fuck in the BNC