Monday, July 11, 2005

It is big and it is clever

As a teenager, I was constantly told off for swearing too much and told, "People who swear are just showing they have a small vocabulary". My own personal response was to prove this wrong and demonstrate that you could swear and have a big vocabulary, so I set out to find as many grossly offensive and fiendishly inventive swearwords as I could. I was helped in my quest by various foul-mouthed friends, Viz comic and the novels of Irvine Welsh. Obviously, I've matured since then and see a place for swearing in particular contexts and at particular moments. Ahem...

So imagine my joy when I discovered research in the British Psychological Society's weekly digest (available free from here), that suggests swearing is actually effective at making people believe what you're saying. The extract is copied below along with a couple of links to sites which look at the history of particular rude words:

Sir Bob Geldof's penchant for the odd swearword or two, might be a shrewder oratory strategy than we realise. Eric Rassin and Simon Van Der Heijden at Erasmus University in The Netherlands report evidence that people are more likely to rate a statement as believable when it contains swearwords.

First Rassin and Van Der Heijden asked 76 students whether they thought the inclusion of swearing in a statement would increase its credibility or reduce it. Forty-six per cent said it wouldn't make any difference, 36 per cent thought it would make a statement less credible, and only 16 per cent thought it would increase a statement's credibility.

But then the researchers asked 70 students to read a fictional account of a statement made by a suspect burglar during a police interview. The 35 students who read the version in which the suspect swore rated his statement as more believable than the 35 students who read a version that was identical in every respect but with the swearwords removed.

In a further study, 54 students read a statement made by an alleged robbery victim. Again, the students who read the version in which the victim swore rated his statements as more believable than the students who read a version without swearwords.

"If one wants to appear more credible, it is recommendable to utter an occasional swearword", the researchers advised.

Links to websites on swearing. Warning! These sites contain foul and abusive language. Look at them only in the spirit of linguistic exploration, not for cheap thrills!

The history of profanity
BBC - origins and common usage of British swear words
Mark Lawson article on Guardian on overuse of profanity

Useful for:
ENA5 Language Change (esp. essay question on Contemporary Language Change)
ENA1 Language and Representation (esp. linguistic reflectionism)
ENA3 Gender & Spoken Language
ENA6 Language Debates (attitudes towards language change, debates about language and society)
EA4C Language Investigation (students have done very good pieces of coursework on swearing, attitudes towards it and the histories of particular expressions)

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