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Fluency in Bad Words Indicates Good Vocabulary Overall


The films of writer-director Quentin Tarantino, left, are notoriously profane, with much of the vulgarity delivered by actor Samuel L. Jackson, right. Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images
The films of writer-director Quentin Tarantino, left, are notoriously profane, with much of the vulgarity delivered by actor Samuel L. Jackson, right. Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

In some circles, a foul mouth is a sign of a limited vocabulary. People turn to the seven dirty words, the story goes, when they can't find other, more eloquent ways of expressing themselves. The dictionary stamps the "vulgar" tag on a variety of vivid phrases and terms, but that doesn't stop folks from cursing like sailors at the drop of a hat. If all of that change that's been tossed into family and office swear word jars over the years was bundled up, we could probably put a good dent in world hunger. 

The good news for salty talkers is that profanity might actually be a sign of creativity, at least according to a pair of American researchers. The team's recent study shows that people who have a more varied array of curse words ready at the draw are also more likely to have a more advanced vocabulary in general. 

"Verbal gymnasts are swearing gymnasts, and they can curse you a variety of ways," says Timothy Jay, a psychology professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts who performed the study. "This is not about knowing swear words as it is about knowing words generally."

The husband and wife team of Jay and Marist University professor Kristin Jay tested college students' ability to come up with "taboo" words — including general swear words, explicit sexual phrases and racial and other slurs — in a 60 second span. They measured that against participants' performance on a verbal assessment called the Controlled Oral Word Association Test. The COWAT asks students to say or write as many words beginning with the letters "F," "A," and "S" as possible in one minute for each letter. The researchers also gauged participants' linguistic skills by asking them in a separate test to name as many animals as they could think of in one minute.

The Jays found that those participants who scored high on taboo fluency also tended to outscore others on the other verbal assessments. In other words, they concluded that "a voluminous taboo lexicon may better be considered an indicator of healthy verbal abilities, rather than a cover for their deficiencies."

Timothy Jay calls the idea that foul language means poor verbal skills "a form of linguistic snobbery." That view has a potentially important social impact, according to Jay, because curse words are a powerful way of expressing emotions verbally rather that punching someone out or reaching for a weapon.

"Swearing is pervasive and it is normal," Jay says. "All native speakers know how to swear, but whether they do or not is a matter of practice and context."