Does the use of taboo words indicate that you lack vocabulary knowledge?


Two Hypotheses

Slurs and curse words are frowned upon in most cultures. The use of taboo words is generally unprofessional, and many believe that the use of obscene words indicates poverty-of-vocabulary (POV), the view that people can not think of  “better,” less-aggravated vocabulary words to use, so they substitute those words with slurs and other obscenities. However, this hypothesis was opposed by another. Timothy Jay of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts  and many others have stated their belief that slurs are legitimate for usage in the human vocabulary because they are versatile in language and follow the rules in linguistics. Jay also stated that taboo words are often used to convey strong emotions. In my opinion, this could explain the reason for belief of the poverty-of-vocabulary hypothesis. Many of those in heated arguments may seem less inclined to know non-taboo words, as they would be more emotional, and therefore less controlled. This is such a disputable topic that there are even websites encouraging people not to cuss and songs encouraging cursing.

Kristin L. Jay and Timothy B. Jay tested these hypotheses in a 2015 study to determine what the use of taboo words indicates.


Unprofessional. (


In the first study, fluency of prompt was tested. The POV hypothesis prediction was that taboo word fluency and non-taboo word fluency were negatively correlated.

The study consisted of 43 participants ages 18 to 22. To eliminate bias, the experimenters were not in the room. Instead, audio recordings were used to relay instructions and information. Lag time in between the participants’ word-generation was to be measured. First, each participant was given 1 minute per letter (F, A, and S) to list as many words as they could that began with the aforementioned letters in the quickest possible manner. Second, each participant was then asked to repeat the experiment, but to list animals instead (beginning with any letters). Third, each participant was asked to repeat the experiment a last time by listing curse or swear words (beginning with any letters).

The results indicated that, despite different lag times and amount of words generated per category, all measures of fluency were significantly positively correlated with one another. This challenged the POV view. 

Means and standard errors for generation by prompt and sex in Study 2 (written ...

A graph of Study 1 results. (

Study 2

In the second study, experimenters wanted to determine whether the results of Study 1 were due to actual vocabulary storage or whether or not the participants were simply uneasy with blurting out certain taboo words.

The study consisted of 49 participants ages 18 to 22. Unlike Study 1, Study 2 was a written format rather than spoken. The study was similar to the first study, but the participants were asked to write the words. The participants were also given 2 minutes for each category because writing takes more time than speaking. The written format eliminated the struggle of trying not to repeat a word. Participants were also expected to be more willing to write taboo words, since the process of using taboo words is usually a verbal practice.

The results of Study 2 indicated that the results of Study 1 were not due to the participants’ reluctance to verbalize taboo words. Study 2 also had similar results to Study 1, except that the FAS (letters) category of fluency was only positively correlated rather than significantly positively correlated. This study, like Study 1, also challenged the POV view.

Means and standard errors for generation by prompt and sex in Study 2 (written ...

A graph of Study 2 results. (

Study 3

In the third and final study, the experiment was meant to ensure the accuracy of the fluency results in Studies 1 and 2 while also exploring how certain personality traits correlate with taboo word usage.

The study consisted of 126 college students ages 18-38. In addition to utilizing the same procedures as those in Study 2, participants were also asked to self-evaluate “on 7-Likert scales to the questions: How religious are you? How often do you say swear words? Relative to people your age, how often do you swear? and How offended are you by others’ use of swear words? (John et al., 2008)” These questions assessed “openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (Jay K., Jay T.).”

The results of Study 3 support the results of of Study 1. All three categories of fluency measures measured significantly positively correlated. Just as in the previous 2 studies, the third indicates error in the POV view.

Means and standard errors for generation by prompt and sex in Study 3. ...

A graph of Study 3 results. (


The POV view was ultimately found to be incongruent with much of the language research that has been completed. Although one may expect that lulls in conversation might be interspaced with taboo words, filler words such as “um” and the like were found to be used instead. Thus, the only difference in the use of taboo words rather than non-taboo words is that taboo words stem from strong emotions. Moreover, the frequent use of taboo words may indicate more lexical knowledge, as taboo-word users tend to thoroughly understand how to utilize taboo words despite the words’ many subtle meanings.

The study was well-executed because they used a decently-sized population. The experiments minimized the chances of third variables by eliminating the researchers when asking test questions via recording. The demographics of the participants were also randomized.


Relatedly, in a 2006 study, Matthias Mehl, Samuel Gosling, and James Pennebaker discovered that people who use swear words more frequently are generally more extroverted and less agreeable. I have personally found the extroversion to be true, based on what I have noticed about the people around me. To me, this makes sense because a more introverted person would probably be less inclined to use words that would draw more attention to them. I also agree that those that curse more often are often less agreeable. I have simply found this to be true in my day-to-day life.

It is important to note that correlation does not equal causation–a fact that is incessantly repeated in class. However, in my opinion, the strong correlation suggested in all three of the studies should indicate at least one cliche thing: Do not judge a book by its cover. Perhaps the people cursing up a storm is the next Einstein (also, perhaps not).


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