Does swearing mean you’re unintelligent?

I don’t typically think about how often I swear. However, recently a friend of mine commented on it. “You’re better than that,” he said. It bothered me. While he didn’t know it, he basically just said, “I’m better than you. Be more like me.” I don’t begrudge my friend. He didn’t really think about what he was saying. In fact, it turns out he was repeating something someone had told him. I’m sure it was meant to be a pep talk. A motivator for me to strive to be a better person. But it wasn’t. It was judgment.

Not more than a week later I was engaged in a conversation in which someone told me that he or she viewed people who swear as less intelligent. This flipped my pancake. Once again, with a smidgen of subtlety, someone insulted me to my face.

“I swear. Do you think I’m unintelligent?” Turns out she did. The finer point was that cursing makes you sound unintelligent. It doesn’t matter whether you are; the perception is there.

To me, this judgment is narrow-minded. Swearing should have no bearing on the perception of one’s intelligence. But it does. I realize I can do little to influence people’s perception of this. But since there are dozens of blogs out there telling us to stop swearing, it only seemed fitting to have a counterpoint.

What does it mean to swear?

First thing we need to do is swallow a big old honesty pill – words mean nothing. Words only have meaning because we gave it to them. The spoken word is only a collection of agreed upon noises we use to communicate. And in fact, it’s not that agreed upon. There are a lot of languages in the world and language is ever-evolving. So what we’re defining here as curse words are English-language curse words at this moment in time.

Words only have the power that we give them. Curse words only perpetuate in our culture because of us. Not because we say them, but because we scorn them. If you make a word like fuck dangerous and prohibit its use it’s only ensuring its power and attractiveness. The quickest way to marginalize a word is to remove the stigma attached to it.

Want more proof that words only have the weight we give them? Dumbass and Senator Rick Santorum made some frothy comments in 2003 that pissed off the gay and lesbian communities. Their counter attack? A calculated campaign that culminated with the top Google search result for Santorum bringing the following definition:

Santorum: The frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the by-product of anal sex.

At what point does Santorum become a curse word? The definition is certainly dirty. How about taint? Is taint a curse word? What about its synonyms gooch and grundel. Who decides when a word “goes bad”? You can’t fall back on its usage. Scrubs character Elliot frequently used “frick” when she became frustrated. Is frick a bad word? It’s clearly a replacement for fuck.

I was recently informed that scumbag was a bad word. Though it sounds like something you’d call a criminal back in the ’60s, it’s actually a term for a condom. Usually referring to a used one.

Break it down now

Expletive – an interjectory word or expression, frequently profane

Interjection – a word or remark expressing emotion

So basically… Swearing reflects an emotional state. But don’t forget, it said profane as well.

Profane – common or vulgar

Vulgar – characterized by ignorance or a lack of good breeding or taste

So showing my emotional state is deemed ignorant?


“I forgot the milk.”

“I forgot the fucking milk.”

“Fuck. I fucking forgot the fucking milk.”

The first one is fine. But without any context it gives me no insight into the emotional state of the person saying it. Sure it won’t offend anyone, but I have no idea how he feels about forgetting the milk.

The second one is clear as day. The person is angry about forgetting the milk. The expletive makes his emotional state known. He doesn’t need to shout it. An exclamation point wouldn’t denote anything more than volume.

The third example seems excessive. As I said before, overuse marginalizes the word. The person might be angry here, but I can’t be sure. The overuse undercuts the emotional state. Any attempt to guess his or her emotional state is obfuscated because his use of expletives is not an emotionally based one, but a habitual one. More like a stutter. Or when rappers keep asking if I know what they mean.

The term expletive comes from the Latin verb explere, meaning “to fill”, via expletivus, “filling out”. It was introduced into English in the seventeenth century for various kinds of padding; basically adding material and syllables to poetry for metrical purposes. People rarely reference it like that anymore.

An expletive attributive is an adjective or adverb (or adjectival or adverbial phrase) that is meaningless and merely used to intensify.

In our second sentence, “I forgot the fucking milk,” fucking acts as an expletive attributive and as an intensifier.

Intensifier is a linguistic term (but not a proper category) for a modifier that amplifies the meaning of the word it modifies. Examples: very, extremely, greatly.

Hence fucking qualifies and intensifies it for emotional impact.

For comedy’s sake

Good comedians are typically very smart people. Some people might not know this because they use foul language. People like say, oh, I don’t know – Today show correspondent Jamie Gangel. She interviewed comedian Louis C.K. in June 2012. After showing a series of Louis’s jokes that were so censored for TV you couldn’t understand two words back-to-back  she says, in that douchey dramatic tone every reporter seemingly practices in front of the mirror, “Louis C.K. likes to push the envelope.” She implied that swearing is innovative. It’s not. I’m sure Louis would agree. His comedy is innovative for the jokes. Not the swearing. Play a clip where he’s not swearing if you’re going to say dumb idioms like “pushing the envelope” to illustrate your point. Otherwise it comes off as sarcastic. Then, after she pretends to kiss his ass in a very condescending tone, she breaks out this gem, “Why do you go for the cheap joke?” He shook his head, subtly swallowed his rage, and simply replied, “Anybody who thinks those are easy laughs, go ahead and try to get those laughs. There’s no such thing as a cheap laugh. They all cost something.”

Swearing isn’t innovative; it also doesn’t automatically make something funny. But it doesn’t cheapen it either; it doesn’t make it easier or less intelligent.

Sometimes a curse word is the only thing that is funny. Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park know it. On several occasions I’ve noticed a reaction shot of a character simply saying, “Goddamn it!” To some people this is just another swear. To me, it’s the only one that fits. Shit. Fuck. Son of a bitch. All of these could have been used, but none of them fit. In these instances only “Goddamn it!” fit. Only that particular swear word made it funny. As a writer, you should always be looking for the right words. Not just the pretty ones.

Another example would be NBC’s Up All Night. This show made use of the censor beep itself. Knowing that their expletives would be beeped, they used it to strengthen a joke in the first episode. Staring at their newborn, Chris says, “She is so beautiful.” To which Reagan replies, “So fucking beautiful.” Not only do they beep out “fucking” but the dialogue following is so obscured you can’t even guess what she may have been saying. Then, realizing her agressive use of expletives, Reagan decides that they should probably curb their language with a kid around. The joke comes from the beep. If they had used a less agressive swear word, perhaps one that made it on air, it wouldn’t have been funny.

Swearing has its place in comedy and does not imply a lack of intelligence.

See also: Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, John Oliver, George Carlin and so many others.

Opinions are like…

I found a few interesting threads where people were openly debating this issue. The first was a posting titled “Do you think swearing makes one seem less intelligent?” As I read through the answers I grouped them into two categories, yes and no. I then noticed some unexpected results. The majority of the Yes answers were brief, and the majority of the No answers went into more detail. Often the No’s offered insights as to why or when a person might swear. On average I found that the No’s offered more perspective and encouraged discussion while the Yes’s offered their short opinion as if it were fact. (Like I’m doing right now!)

The two most common Yes answers given:

“It shows a lack of respect and self control.”

“Swearing shows proof of the lack of an intelligence.”

The Yes’s were so definitive in their answers. Like this one; my favorite thus far. And this is exactly how they wrote it:

Yes and here is why,

People who swear are generally less educated and cover up their lack of education by swearing.

It attracts attention to them and they enjoy it.

There was one Yes that actually had something to offer.

In English, yes, probably so – partly because our bad-word vocabulary is so limited. In Arabic, cursing can be an art form – full of imaginative and ornamental phrasings.

Cursing an art form? Now you’re just teasing me.

Profanity is the crutch of the inarticulate motherfucker.

We’ll just file that one under Maybe.

And then there’s this guy

Ever hear of Steven Shaw? Me neither. He’s a writer for – which I guess is a website. Their slogan: become a better man. Apparently that involves The Freshest, Most Awesome Margarita Recipe, Body Hair Dos and Don’ts, and The Speedo Debate. Yes, the speedo must be debated.

There’s an article by Mr. Shaw titled “Stop Swearing, why you can’t pull a Mark Cuban”. The apparent impetus for this article: Mr. Cuban said “the S-word” on television.

It starts off promising.

“Sure, swearing has its uses; it emphasizes points and emotional expressions well, and it can be used for comic and dramatic effect. Some studies have even shown that a swearword can physically reduce pain, like when you stub your toe.

But since these uses are most effective in moderation, when did using a swearword in every other sentence become acceptable?””

I’m with you so far. Go on.

“It’s adolescent … You’re a man now, and that should mean that swearing is off the agenda. Just because the “cool” guy in sales swears does not mean you should return to the playground and copy him. Are you a man who knows who he is or just a kid playing grown-up? Be a man and know that you don’t need to swear to be popular.”

If you swear because you want to be popular, or cool, then I agree – knock it off. But I disagree with the premise that the majority of full grown adults swear for this reason. In fact, I would reason that people more often swear because they don’t care how they’re regarded. They’re just being honest and unrestricted. It’s free, unchecked expression. Who does that sound like? Maybe somebody worth 2.3 billion dollars and named Mark Cuban.

He presupposes a few other ridiculous premises that aren’t even worth mentioning; then finally lands on the bomb.

“… improve your vocabulary.”

This is the single most reiterated sentiment when it comes to swearing. Just like our genius from the previous thread, he believes people swear because they have a limited vocabulary. If they just knew some more words they wouldn’t swear. You know, because they wouldn’t be so stupid.

Clearly I can’t speak for others vocabulary knowledge. To do so would be uninformed and reckless. Like assuming they don’t have a good vocabulary. However it feels like a reach to say SAT words would replace their intensifiers and properly represent their emotional state.

To be fair Mr. Shaw’s article wasn’t completely worthless. There was one point of merit that, unfortunately, didn’t come until the end.

“Swearing is inconsiderate … Why assume that everyone around you tolerates swearing? That is an inconsiderate and arrogant attitude. For all you know, the people around you could be deeply offended by the use of bad language…”

I agree.

This is the real reason people shouldn’t swear. Or at least in certain situations. Not because of some question about their manhood. Not because some ignorant asshole might think you sound stupid. He’s an ignorant asshole. Who cares what he thinks? Maybe you shouldn’t swear because you’re affecting those around you. Sometimes unintentionally to your own detriment.

Picture this. You’re at a Clippers game shouting about what a bad religion Scientology is. You’re pissed because your E-meter’s thetan level was bullshit and now you’ll never find that Bridge they keeping talking about. Well who should be sitting behind you but Tom Cruise. Mister Mapother himself. You just insulted him. He won’t be sharing your nachos now. You’re lucky if he doesn’t go Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol on you. He does his own stunts!

This is what cursing is to some people.

So can I swear or what?

To say that we can always swear is as narrow-minded as saying we should never swear. There is a time and a place for everything. While we should revel in our freedoms we shouldn’t infringe on others.

“Talk is free but the wise man chooses when to spend his words.”

— Neil Gaiman (Odd and the Frost Giants)