“They lack a respectable vocabulary, they use a curse word because they lack the intelligence to think quickly and form a valid point,” reads the reply to the question of, “Do unintelligent people cuss more than intelligent people do?” on debate.org. Not only is the answer harsh and assuming, but untrue.
Cursing or swearing has long been associated with a limited vocabulary. This, in turn, leads to the misconception that people who swear are not smart. Both of these long-held stereotypes are wrong. Intelligence and swearing are not mutually exclusive, nor is having a large vocabulary and cursing. In fact, cursing may be more beneficial than not.
Like most issues, we must first understand the background of the problem. The cultural implication of profanity aside, the reason people associate it with a lack of intelligence is because so many people think like the commenter referenced above.
The poverty of vocabulary myth states “At least this is what the ‘poverty-of-vocabulary’ hypothesis would have us believe,” said Piercarlo Valdesolo in a Scientific American article. “On this account, swearing is the ‘sign of a weak vocabulary,’ a result of a lack of education, laziness or impulsiveness. In line with this idea, we tend to judge vulgarians quite harshly, rating them lower on socio-intellectual status, less effective at their jobs and less friendly.”
Dr. Timothy Jay, a language scholar and emeritus professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, co-authored a 2015 study which examined the myth.
“We found that people who could generate a lot of letter words and animal names could also generate the most swear words,” Dr. Jay said. “So as fluency goes up, so does the ability to say swear words, not the other way around.’’ He added, “Fluency is fluency.”
Simply put, this means as one gains a broader vocabulary, so does their ability to use profanity.
Cursing doesn’t mean one’s vocabulary is small. It’s merely a choice in self-expression, and a smarter one, in fact. Anybody can use culturally non-taboo language, but there is unique strategy in one’s use of swear words.
Swear words have an effect other words typically do not. They are a powerful, concise and purposeful way to express one’s thought and feelings. This does not negate the speaker’s arsenal of other words, but it emphasizes the strategy that went into the choice of cursing. There is also strategy involved in choosing which environments the use of profanity are appropriate.
This long-held stereotype is constantly reinforced in various social circles and the general culture of the country. It is harmful in its rejection of the intelligence of otherwise “acceptable” intellects based on a requirement with no true merit behind it.
Maya Stevenson is a 19-year-old English and economics sophomore from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.