Swear words are a part of everyday interactions; while some find them funny, others find them downright offensive. As students on a college campus, cursing is a normal way of communicating (at least, for the majority of us), and even I’ll admit that I tend to curse a lot in conversations with friends. I find it perfectly acceptable if it’s not in a formal setting where respect is necessary. However, not everyone agrees with my philosophy and find swearing to be incredibly rude at any time. Not only that, but some even think that cursing indicates that someone is over a lower intelligence and that they can’t think of any other words to use. I disagree with this idea, since I think of myself as a relatively intelligent person who happens to swear a lot. So, I decided to ask the question: does swearing correlate with a lack of intelligence? Of course, correlation does not equal causation, especially in this scenario. I’m not trying to find out if swearing causes low intelligence, but rather if there’s a link between the two to begin with.
The notion that the use of curse words indicates a lower intelligence is not a new one. In fact, it has even been suggested that using such profane language can change perceptions of other attributes. In this study published by researchers in Kentucky, it was found that people viewed police officers as less friendly, just, and fair if they swore. The participants in the experiment were shown videos of police officers stopping people for traffic violations. In some of these videos, the police officers used one curse word, while they used none in others. After the videos, participants rated the character of the officers. The scientists saw with these evaluations that police officers were rated more negatively if they swore than if they didn’t. While this study does show that people may view swearing as damaging to someone’s character, it should still be viewed with some skepticism. Even the study itself cites potential sources of error. This includes the fact that they used different swear words depending on the category of profanity (sexual, religious, etc.) and didn’t use the same curse word across all the videos. What this means is that people could see different words as more or less offensive, and thus rate the officer differently. Another confounding variable is that people may hold police officers to a higher standard due to their conceptions of the job.
So, the evidence against swearing can be viewed with some skepticism, which removes some of its credibility. The idea that people who swear more are dumber can also be viewed in the same light. Studies have shown that this link does not hold up during experiments. In this study, intelligence as it relates to swearing was tested directly by having 46 college students complete both a survey rating their frequency of swearing and an IQ test. The results were not statistically significant enough to state that cursing impacts intelligence in either direction. Therefore, cursing indicates neither high nor low intelligence. Although the study failed to reject the null hypothesis, it did find an interesting link between a higher IQ and a higher desire to increase vocabulary. That intriguing discovery is unfortunately not relevant to the matter at hand, however.
While the previous study showed no relationship at all, another study discovered a more positive link between swearing and intelligence. This experiment asked participants to take a test measuring fluency in words that are considered “taboo,” aka profane language, as well as a test measuring fluency with words in general and in other areas. There was a positive correlation between scoring highly on the taboo test and scoring highly in general fluency and other areas of fluency. This supports the idea that someone who is fluent in swear words and other profane language is likely fluent in other areas of language as well. The conclusion of this study undermines the idea that those who swear and have knowledge of swear words are less intelligent.
Overall, I find myself unable to come to a definite conclusion on either side. Based on the studies and research I found, it seems to be that swearing is not an indicator of level of intelligence, even though people may perceive you more negatively if you do. It certainly appears that those who do swear a lot are not any less intelligent than those who refrain from cursing, and their usage may even be correlated with good language skills in general. While people may perceive others who swear as having less desirable attributes, there seems to be no scientific basis to do so, and I think that I will happily continue to swear if the situation is appropriate.