The Hidden Qualities of Profanity: Does swearing equate to Intelligence?


Profanity has always been an accumulation of offensive words, spoken perhaps in a spurt of anger or in stressful situations. Constantly changing to fit the views and thoughts of what society considers to be offensive, swearing has arguably been connected with having a lack of education or knowledge. Thus, from a young age, we have been warned off from using them. But have you ever wondered if this stigma is actually true, or is there a lot more to the words we consider taboo?

While the nature of profanity has remained constant – words or phrases that are offensive according to the views of the culture or time period you’re in – the words themselves have changed. For example, the language we consider offensive now, such as the “f-word” or the “s-word”  were normalized in the middle-ages, being incorporated into personal names, street names, or names of plants. Instead, it was religious phrases, such as “by God’s bones” that were considered taboo, due to the religious nature of middle-age society. Interestingly profanity has come full circle, as in Ancient Rome the same type of language now considered offensive was also offensive back then. Furthermore, not only can the severity of certain words depend on the time period, but it can also depend on culture or language. Arguably, swear words considered severe in the English language, like the “f-word”, do not carry the same severity in the German language. Hence showing how profanity has evolved and changed in response to the views of a society, with it now becoming more normalized within the English language among younger generations.


Interestingly though, despite swearing becoming more normalized within the younger generations, there can still be a stigma surrounding profanity that suggests a person’s lack of ability or education to express themselves using more acceptable words. However, recent studies have begun to question this perception, suggesting that it may in fact be the opposite case: that swearing is a sign of intelligence. 

In a 2015 study, researchers found a trend between general vocabulary and curse words, by testing the test subjects’ fluency of general words (i.e. apple, lamp etc.), animal words (i.e. elephant, dog etc.) and curse words. In this study, the examiner chooses a letter used by the test subject to generate a list of all the general words, animals and swear words they can think of that start with the chosen letter. This trend suggested that the more swear words the subject could generate, the more general words they could generate, which indicates the possession of a larger vocabulary. As having a large vocabulary is often linked to being smart, this leads to the suggestion that those who swear more possess more intelligence and knowledge than those who do not.

As interesting as this conclusion is, however, it should not be taken as fact, as there are some limitations. For one, correlation does not equal causation, meaning that while there is a connection between profanity and vocabulary knowledge, it does not mean one caused the other. Furthermore, for this study, vocabulary is used as an indicator for intelligence, but arguably they’re not the same thing, intelligence refers to a wide range of skills other than just vocabulary. Someone who may not be skilled with words, can certainly be intelligent in another area of knowledge. So while it may not be that swearing equals intelligence, it does indicate a certain degree of knowledge, disproving the perception that profanity stems from a lack of knowledge.

This is not the only hidden quality of profanity. You might have noticed that we tend to swear in situations of heightened emotions; whether this be excitement or annoyance. This is not without reason, for studies done in 2009 and 2011 on profanity have offered an explanation for this common occurrence. Differently from normal language/ words, swear words are stored and processed differently by our brain. While general speech is a product of the more logical left hemisphere of the brain, profanity stems from the more creative right hemisphere of the brain. More specifically, it has links to the limbic system in the brain, which is the part of the brain involved in our behavioral or emotional responses to a situation. In fact, this has been proven by the ability of people whose left hemispheres have been destroyed through certain ailments such as Alzheimers or strokes to swear still. This naturally explains why swearing can often be a reaction to a stressful or emotional situation. 

Moreover, as the limbic system specifically deals with matters of survival such as fight or flight responses, it explains another interesting attribute of swearing: pain tolerance. Other studies into profanity have shown that swearing has helped people deal with pain which stimulates the fight or flight response. This might explain why, when you stub a toe or stand on a lego brick, you curse as a way to relieve some of the pain, because these words access our emotions in ways other words cannot. So, while it might not have been tolerated, it certainly helped me tolerate the pain.

Thus, while continuous use of profanity does not guarantee intelligence it also doesn’t suggest a lack thereof. Nor does it suggest an inability to express your emotions, instead being the most succinct way of expressing emotion because of the part of the brain it’s produced by. But despite its positive effects like pain relief and emotional release, profanity can also be capable of causing a great amount of pain when used disrespectfully. Like all words, it matters how and when we use them, so while profanity is becoming more normalized within our languages, care should always be taken when using them, as with any words. Afterall, sometimes words hurt more than actions.