Does Cursing Mean You’re Smarter than Everyone Else?

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Do people swear because they’re too dumb to think of any other words to use? I’ve actually had this allegation leveled at me in the past, but it’s never really bothered me because I got a 7-fucking-80 on my verbal SAT so fuck you, motherfucker.

Not a lot of research has been done to try to disprove that stereotype, I guess because nobody fucking cares that much. But a new study suggests that people who use more swear words may actually have better verbal fluency than other people. Sort of.

Let’s jump right to the criticism: this study was done using a handful of psychology undergrad students at a liberal arts college. There were three separate tests performed: one with 43 students, one with 49 students, and the last one with 126 students to replicate the first two. The standard warning applies: things that a few young, mostly white, mostly well-off college kids do don’t necessarily extrapolate to the world at large.

Also, the tests measured how many swear words the students could name, not how often they themselves used those words. I’m fluent in pig Latin but I don’t go around speaking it, so you can’t really give me a test and use it to better understand someone who wanders the streets alking-tay ike-lay is-thay.

So what this study actually found was that people who can name more swear words were also more likely to be able to name more non-swear words, meaning that verbal fluency is fairly steady whether or not you’re talking about taboo words.

That’s not to say, as some headlines will tell you, “People who swear may actually be smarter than everyone else,” so don’t get a big fucking head about it.

The most interesting part of this study is the list of most common curse words college kids came up with. Back in the ‘70s, George Carlin listed the 7 words you can’t say on television, which were:  shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Not much has changed in the past 40 years. The dirtiest words the college students came up with were, in order of popularity, fuck (124), shit (117), bitch (108), cunt (97), asshole (76), ass (73), damn (56), motherfucker (54), slut (51), and whore (46). I guess piss, tits, and cocksucker just aren’t that shocking anymore.

If you’re wondering where the really shocking ones are, meaning the racial and homophobic slurs (or at least more homophobic than “cocksucker”), they were the least frequently used though they did show up. Slurs against women were the only slurs that made the top 10.

One final note, while reading the study I got super confused because at one point the researchers write “Any intelligible American English taboo terms were considered words (e.g., asspirate)” [with two “S”s). For the life of me I couldn’t understand why a misspelling of “aspirate” would be considered taboo so I actually Googled it. I GOOGLED IT. It was ass-pirate. Hyphens, people. Use hyphens.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. I suspect the off-the-cuff conjecture you gave at the beginning has some merit.

    My observation of is that the most common cursing among people who swear a lot is that the words are taking the place of specialized intensifiers and generic nouns. That’s not to say swearing in general fits that model, just that when someone gives the impression of cussing non-stop, that’s the behavior that provokes it.

  2. My guess would be that if this study has any merit, it just shows that people who aren’t fluent in the fine art of verbal fuckery have mostly subsisted on a diet of less-interesting media in general. Just looking at television, the most sanitized viewing is also hugely popular family fare that isn’t very intellectually challenging. By comparison, the very best stuff is raw and filled with profanity and largely on pay cable, and is also written at a more advanced level than “CSI” or “Big Bang Theory”.

    1. I should say that I’m not exactly knocking family-friendly fare, or that enjoying it makes you generally unintelligent. I’m limiting my ideas towards being fluent in profanity versus general fluency, and nothing else. There’s wide swaths of smart folks who aren’t wordsmiths.

  3. The 7 words you can’t say on the internet (without starting a flame war) are slightly different.

    Yeah, I was actually describing the difficulty with making a Lakota phonetic alphabet on non-Unicode digital media many years ago, on a blog I no longer have (To give you an idea how long ago this was, it was on Blogspot.), and someone made the same ‘aspirate’ pun.

  4. I’v known perhaps two habitual (like in every sentence, and every second or so word) swearers, I don’t remember if they were intelligent or not, but it seemed to me that they could not help it. Not sure if the trait was picked up through habit or there was some other underlying cause.

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