Thursday, January 07, 2016

Colorful Vocabulary

Contrary to the popular belief that using lots of profane or obscene language demonstrates laziness, limited linguistic skills, and lack of imagination, a new study suggests that copious swearing correlates with having a larger vocabulary in general.

A Good Sign If You Curse a Lot

The experiment tested "general verbal fluency" by asking people to produce lists of words beginning with certain letters, names of animals, and taboo words. The first two positively correlated with the last. According to the WASHINGTON POST article, "These findings suggest the idea that 'fluency is fluency,' as the researchers write. People who could recall a lot of bad words also tended to be more eloquent in general." People who are truly at a loss for words come out with place-holders such as "um" and "er," not profanity.

I'm a little dubious of the conclusion. Simply because an individual can "recall a lot of bad words" tells us nothing about whether that person habitually uses the words in everyday conversation. The article also cautions that most people still have a negative view of those who swear a lot. Anyway, it's an interesting angle on the topic.

Psychologist Steven Pinker's book THE STUFF OF THOUGHT includes a long chapter titled, "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television." (That rule was invented before cable, of course.) The criterion by which the notorious seven were chosen is puzzling. Our language has lots of words equally offensive that aren't on the list. And one that is, as Pinker remarks, doesn't seem to belong—"tits." Although slightly vulgar, it's hardly obscene. The chapter explores in detail the kinds of words labeled profane or obscene (mainly terms related to religion, sex, gore, and excrement) and queries why certain combinations of sounds are taboo while their neutral or euphemistic synonyms can be spoken in polite conversation. Pinker points out that cursing constitutes a sort of verbal assault; it forces listeners to think about the unpleasant aspects of the subject (sex, excrement, etc.) whether they want to or not.

Personally, I don't use the taboo words in conversation. I wasn't brought up hearing them (I didn't know the worst of them even existed until adulthood, when I encountered them in books around the time they ceased being considered "unprintable"), and because of that early conditioning, they still make me wince. I associate them with anger and abuse. When upset, I resort to phrases such as "dang it," "rats," and "heavens to Murgatroyd." I'll write the once-forbidden syllables—sparingly—in fictional dialogue if they suit the particular character's personality and situation. After all, my characters don't have to be (and shouldn't all be) just like me. Nevertheless, if subjected to the experiment described in the article, I think I could produce a fairly long list of such words. The seven that used to be banned from TV only scratch the surface.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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