Is Cursing a Sign of Intelligence or Vulgarity?

Thursday, August 243 min read

There’s a school of thought in linguistics called the poverty of vocabulary (POV) hypothesis. The assumption is that if a person is lacking in their vocabulary, they might fill in with curse words. This perspective has led people to view cursing as a sign of poor education, bad manners, or even being lower on the socio-economic ladder. However, recent linguistic research has shown that the exact opposite might be true. Greater fluency with curse words might be a sign of general verbal fluency, and those who are exceptionally vulgar might also be exceptionally eloquent in other ways. Additional research shows that swearing can boost pain tolerance, make people more emotionally resilient, and be a signal for positive personality traits such as honesty and directness.

What Makes a Curse Word?

Legendary stand-up comedian George Carlin had a famous act called “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” which was based on his premise that everyone has a different list of curse words, and the lists can change over time (and by context). In fact, linguists trace the concept of profanity back to ancient Rome, but in general, it’s connected to religion. In Judeo-Christian and Muslim traditions, a word becomes profane when it’s stripped of its intent and used outside of religious contexts.

Other curse words were created as euphemisms for lewd or provocative terms, but became vulgar terms themselves. The most modern iteration of curse words comes from social media apps: As a way of getting around community standards that ban certain words or topics, users create new words, which then become profanity on their own.

Grow Your Cursing Vocabulary

Opinions are split on whether cursing is a sign of a limited vocabulary, or a signal that someone possesses great verbal eloquence. Either way, let’s take a dive into the world of old-fashioned curse words. These words may have been considered profanity at one point in time, but today they sound almost quaint.


This English word, primarily used in Ireland, appeared in 1821. The interjection is a corruption of the blasphemous “by Jesus.”

Consarn it

Oxford traces this regional expression to the early 1800s, used “in the optative” (expressing a wish) to indicate annoyance, hatred, or dismissal. It’s a mild version of “damn.”

Great horn spoon

This charming phrase is a less blasphemous alternative to “by God!” or any of its variants. Linguists believe it comes from sailor slang and may refer to the Big Dipper.


The OED tracks the earliest usage of this word to the late 1500s. It’s an example of linguistic clipping, or shortening a word — it’s an abbreviated form of the expression “God’s nails.” This is also how we get the curses “zounds” (“God’s wounds”), “strewth” (“God’s truth”), and “ods bodikins” (“God’s little body”).


Rather than clip the word, some folks prefer to replace “God” with “gosh,” as evidenced by the range of “gosh” options. But of all the expressions in the “gosh all” category — “Goshalmighty,” “gosh-all-hemlock,” “gosh all fish-hooks” — “gosh-all-Potomac” is the earliest one tracked in the Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles, a reference book that defines the usages of words and phrases in American English versus British English (published from 1936 to 1944).


Gadzooks” appeared in English in the mid-1600s, used to express surprise, alarm, or to affirm the truth of a statement. Like “’snails,” it’s an example of clipping: It’s an abbreviated form of the expression “God’s hooks.”


This is less of an insult, and more something you’d yell after someone insults you. It’s related to the expression “zounds” and dates back to the 1600s.

Featured image credit: Hamim Thohari/ iStock

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