My son took an impromptu train ride from Kolkata to Chennai with his father when he was three. We had gone to the railway station to see my husband off, when my son began crying, begging to go too. School was closed; my husband didn’t mind, and so off he went. I was a trifle concerned about how he would handle the long journey and gel with the co-passengers. I needn’t have worried. The ice was apparently broken within the first 30 minutes of the journey, when the quiet little fellow—who had chosen to sit on the top bunk and play with whatever toys he had in his always-overflowing pockets—dropped something on the floor and shouted ‘Shit’ in frustration. (The cuss-word may score poorly on the profanity scale nowadays but, then, it was a big no-no.)
The adults in the cabin were taken aback initially but their surprise very quickly turned to amusement when they saw the boy’s serious gaze and the father’s guilty one. The boy was brought down, handed back his toy and engaged in conversation to see what other profanities he knew. He helpfully parroted all the taboo words he had picked up from his dad and was rewarded with sweets and shouts of laughter. Needless to say, the journey went like a dream.
I didn’t know it then (sadly!), but new research says people who express themselves through swear words may actually be more trustworthy than those who don’t. A study in 2017, in fact, concluded ‘a positive relationship between profanity and honesty’. As the scientists behind the study explained, if you filter your language when speaking, you’re probably also filtering what you’re saying and are less likely to say what you really mean and more what you think other people want to hear. (My little boy certainly didn’t fall into this category.)
But it’s not just honesty that’s weighing in on the side of people with a poor mind-to-mouth filter. It’s intelligence too. Contrary to earlier belief that swearing is a reflection of poor education and people who use taboo words lack vocabulary, science now says it’s the bright sparks who are more inclined to profanity. Apparently, people who can reel off the most cuss words in a minute also score higher on IQ tests. In other words, swear words are now correlated with overall verbal fluency and cussers are considered people with rhetorical strength rather than folks with a verbal deficit to hide.
Of course, context is key. Sexist, racial or caste-based slurs are not acceptable in anyone, no matter how intelligent or honest they are. Those who want to get their tone and terms just right may want to grab a copy of Newsweek, where actor Samuel Jackson, who’s currently teaching acting on an online platform, provides a lesson in swearing. The key, he says, lies in using cusses for emphasis. For that, you must have more than a rudimentary knowledge of language, and to use that knowledge to colour your words in a way that ensures you’re understood without any question. Sounds like a lot of work, dammit.