It’s a typical parent statement, when you’re in trouble for swearing: only people with small vocabularies resort to swearwords. Swearing is seen as ‘stupid’ and the tactic of someone with a failed education when better communication fails them. As much as that might put some people off of swearing, and whether that’s a good thing or not, this clean language argument has some major flaws.
The first flaw, of course, is that even if it were true that swearing is the sign of lower intelligence, that would not be a reason to not swear. To suggest so is to suggest that there is something wrong and undesirable about being seen as less intelligent, that people who are less intelligent that you are less worthy of respect. Hopefully, decent people will find this an unpleasant enough point, but it’s also worth noting that factors beyond an individual’s control affect their intelligence. Not only does class/wealth (and race, gender and other social oppression axes) affect the quality of the education available to you, disabilities and learning difficulties make massive vocabularies an unobtainable goal for many people. Taking all that into account, it’s hardly a fair way to judge the worth of people, and hardly a fair thing to use as a scare. Imagine if the statement was openly saying that only poor people with learning difficulties swore; it would far more obvious that it’s a horrible thing to say.
The second flaw is that it’s just not true. Swearwords are words, and can quite easily fit into a large vocabulary, just as any word can. An intelligent, educated person could, for example, explain how the word ‘fuck’ is used as a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb and a connective. Physicist Lawrence Krauss infamously named a lecture on oblivion “We’re All Fucked.”* Stephen Fry, host of QI and hardly someone who would be described as stupid, shares this opinion, saying on a BBC4 show that he feels that “the people I know who swear the most tend to have the widest vocabularies and the kind of person who says swearing is a sign of a poor vocabularies usually have a pretty poor vocabularies themself.”* I Fucking Love Science (http://www.iflscience.com/) is a website that shares funny and interesting science news, and somehow manages not to fall into juvenility and cluelessness whilst having the word ‘fucking’ in the title.
Aside from the clear genital-area and sex taboo that marks our swearwords, there is a linguistic connection. Far from being invented as vulgarisms by the stupid, the majority of our swearwords are Old and Middle English in origin, and it’s the nobility speaking French and Latin that have marked words like ‘shit’ and ‘piss’ vulgar and ‘faeces’ and ‘urine’ polite and medical. Taking the etymologies and use of euphemisms into account, some ‘swearwords’ are actually far more neutral or positive words. The Middle English word ‘cunt’ basically means ‘female genitalia’, sharing a root with words like ‘cow’, whereas the Latin word ‘vagina’ literally means ‘sheath’, something that’s only use is storage. These ‘vulgarisms’ appear in historical texts – not just Chaucer’s use of the word ‘arse’ in Canterbury Tales, but use of words like ‘arse’ and ‘cunt’ in Middle English medical texts. Before English adopted French and Latin words, those were the only words that existed for those body parts.
After all, they’re just fucking words.