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The Most Popular Curse Words on Twitter Depress Me

A study was done looking at what, how often, and when we curse on Twitter, with the top 20 curses on Twitter being listed.  Curse word is used loosely in this case.  Yes, the ones you’d suspect are on the list, but also, a bunch of words that we’d deem “could get you sent to the principal’s office” — such as whore — are also on the list and aren’t curses insomuch as they are descriptive terms.  I mean, perhaps your sister really is a whore, as in that’s her job.  So technically, by writing something like, “gah, my sister caught a VD at her job!”  And having one of your Twitter followers tweet back, “what does she do?”  And you respond,  “my sister is a whore.”  Well, then, you cursed.  According to this study.  Just kidding.  They even looked at how we use curse words online.

The researchers were able to find 788 curse words to research.  That’s a lot of curse words.  Which means that some of them are less curse-y than others.  I started trying to construct a list of the curse words I know in my head, but I petered out before I hit 100.  So well done, researchers.

So, first and foremost, you should know that research has found that “0.5% to 0.7% of all the words we speak in our daily lives are curse words.”  On social media, it’s 3%.  So we curse a lot more when it’s going to be on the screen for eternity than when we’re saying something in passing to a single person that will not be recorded.  Interesting.  One out of every 13 tweets contains a curse word.

Over 90% of the cursing on Twitter is done with the top seven words: fuck, shit, ass, bitch, n*gga, hell, and whore.

Yes, I put as asterisk in that word.  While fuck, shit, ass, bitch, hell, and whore don’t bother me in the least, that last one does.  Everyone should have a personal bar, and that one doesn’t clear mine.

Nor do a few others on the 20 most popular swear words list:

  1. Fuck
  2. Shit
  3. Ass
  4. Bitch
  5. N*gga
  6. Hell
  7. Whore
  8. Dick
  9. Piss
  10. Pussy
  11. Slut
  12. Puta
  13. Tit
  14. Damn
  15. F*g
  16. Cunt
  17. Cum
  18. Cock
  19. Blowjob
  20. R*tard

Three of my least favourite words hit the top 20, two of which are lecture-worthy to me.  In other words, when I hear kids saying them in public, I say something to them.  While I try not to make it a habit of lecturing other adults, I have no problem trying to shape the youth of America.  So I have been known when I hear kids shout out things such as “that’s retarded!” or “that’s so gay!” to paddle up to them in the pool and cheerfully let them know how much their misuse of the word affected me.  My hope is that I startle the use of that word right out of them.  And, at the very least, they will never forget the day that woman in combat boots came up to them in the mall and told them how she feels when she hears those words misused.  And they have the image of my smiling face in their brain every time they say it.

Again, we all have our own bars and no one has to listen to me and elevated their verbalizations to reach mine, but these are cases where I am not a delicate flower and cursing stings my precious ears.  This is a case where I can explain the etymology of the word, how it came to be used negatively, and why it offends me to hear someone use it so flippantly.

So it depresses me to hear that my two pet peeves — #15 and #20 — made the list.

Back to the cursing breakdown, fuck covers 34.73% of the cursing done on Twitter.  It really carries a heavy weight in comparison to the work done by the next most popularly-used words, shit.  Shit only occurs 15.04% of the time.  Followed by “ass (14.48%), bitch (10.34%), n*gga (9.68%), hell (4.46%), whore (1.82%), dick (1.67%), piss (1.53%), and pussy (1.16%).”

Why we curse is mostly to vent our frustrations: “Not surprisingly, cursing is associated with negative emotions: 21.83% and 16.79% of the cursing tweets express sadness and anger emotions, respectively.”  Though the rest of the story is one of using curse words to express love: “However, we also find that 6.59% of cursing tweets express love. One reason is that curse words can be used to emphasize emotions, including positive ones such as love: e.g., “fucking love you.” Another reason is that certain curse words are used between close friends as a playful interaction, e.g., close female friends call each other whore.”

The study goes on to look at when we curse and where we are when we curse and who curses more when it comes to men or women.

You may wonder about who funded this study.  “This research was supported by US National Science Foundation grant IIS-1111182: SoCS: Social Media Enhanced Organizational Sensemaking in Emergency Response.”  Thanks, US National Science Foundation.  Money well spent.

Are you more or less likely to use a curse word online vs. in regular speech considering the possible permanence of the Internet?

 Note to my mother: I had to write curse words in this case because I’m reporting on research.  It’s not my fault.


1 Christine { 02.22.14 at 1:02 pm }

I’m about as likely to curse in real life as online. Which is, not much. I cleaned up my speech when I had kids, and I was never a big curser anyway, for an Irishperson. I tend to find Americans much more clean-mouthed (I know, you might be surprised) and I didn’t want to give a bad impression right off the bat.

But when I got to no. 15 in your list I actually had to fit in all the vowels before I figured it out: “fig? fog? fug?” etc. It’s just not a word I ever see these days. But I’m sure that is demographic dependent.

2 Elisha { 02.22.14 at 3:24 pm }

I love the disclaimer to your mother on the bottom! Too funny!! I was shocked to see the word “tit” used. While I personally don’t like that word used towards me because it signifies that mine are small and insignificant (haha) , I never would have dreamed it would have made the top 20. I can’t believe they did a study on this…I could think of lots of other useful ways to spend this money.


3 Valery Valentina { 02.22.14 at 3:25 pm }

I would say I hardly ever curse. However, 788 curse words seem a lot. maybe oopsydaisy is in that list? what about stupid?. But I’m more likely to use curses from the second and third category:”the word can be used for both cursing and non-cursing purposes, 3 – usually the word is not used for cursing”, like sugar and fudge.
But from what i hear around me, even in Dutch the nrs 1,2,4 & 11 are common. And 3 with -hole behind it…

I don’t think I could feel someone’s sadness though if they use curse words, I only associate that with anger. And I’m not into reading anger if I can help it.

4 Battynurse { 02.22.14 at 6:11 pm }

So I’m not on twitter, only FB. My friend list on FB does include some of my aunts etc plus a few people who are somewhat religious so I tend to keep the swear words to a minimum. I swear a lot more in real life although it does depend where I am and who I’m with. If I’m with someone who may be offended I try not to.

5 Mali { 02.22.14 at 6:48 pm }

Now you’ve made me want to go and count how many swear (“curse” in North American) words I know.

It always depresses me to see that the number of swear words that refer to women in a derogatory way is double that of those about men. Sigh. I never use #4, 7, 10, 11, or 16. Correction: I would use #10 to refer to my cat. (Ever seen the Mrs. Slocombe clips about her pussy?)

I do admit though, swearing can be therapeutic. We are less concerned here with mild swear words. There are a few on that list that wouldn’t make the list here – in terms of usage (or perhaps that’s a reflection of my demographic too?) – and a few more that wouldn’t make the list in terms of severity (although we still probably wouldn’t use them in polite company.)

And I had to laugh at your note to your mother. A few years ago my mother was visiting, and was sitting reading in the living room, a couple of rooms away from the kitchen, but with no doors closed. I dropped something and swore … loudly (forgetting she was there). Next minute I heard her say “I’ve heard that word from your two sisters, but never thought I’d hear it from you.” Oops.

6 Mali { 02.22.14 at 6:49 pm }

Oh – and to answer your question, I’m very careful about what I say on social media. The worst word I’ve used is probably “damn” (and for us, here, that’s very mild.) Though in deference to my US friends, I sometimes use “dang” instead.

7 Catwoman73 { 02.22.14 at 8:20 pm }

I would say that I probably curse a little bit more in real life than I do on social media. Ok, a lot more. I am well-known for having a potty mouth. I have no problem cursing on social media, but like you suggested, I tend to reign it in a bit due to the permanence of what I say online. I will only curse online if I believe it serves a purpose that can’t be achieved any other way. I don’t want to have any regrets about what I put out there for the world to read.

8 a { 02.23.14 at 12:23 am }

I definitely curse more IRL than I do on the internet. Permanent recordings of my foul mouth are not necessary. 🙂 Also, I curse a lot more at work than I do anywhere else. I was sort of dismayed to realize that while I didn’t every hear my mother say #1 until I was an adult, my 7 year old has heard me say it many, many times. Sigh. I’m terrible. But, at least she does notice that I only say those kinds of things when I’m REALLY angry, so that’s something?

9 fifi { 02.23.14 at 5:55 am }

IRL I modify my sweariness depending on the company, and try to reserve the big ones for when I feel REALLY strongly about something. Overuse tends to water down the impact.
Online is “mixed company” and I try not to post when angry or upset, so the only time I swear online is if I’m sharing something from I Fucking Love Science.
Although, “ass” doesn’t sound like a real swear qord to me. Why would you compare your derrière to a donkey? “Arse” has a much earthier sound, like something you could actually grab hold of. But I guess it’s what you grow up with.
And I can’t even think about saying “the N word” without picturing some black person looking at me hurt and asking “why would you SAY that?” and I would forever after be unable to look that person in the eye.
I wonder where “quim” is in the list (Avengers fans will get that one.)

10 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 02.23.14 at 10:24 am }

It took me so long to work out what number 15 was. When I was growing up it was a perfectly acceptable (if slightly lower-class) word for “cigarette”. I don’t hear it used that often now.

It’s funny how different words sound more or less taboo to different people. Half my son’s four-year-old classmates casually use the word “shit” in everyday conversation. Their parents don’t even blink. I can’t imagine a whole classroom of preschoolers in Australia passing around the word shit and nobody even raises and eyebrow and suggests that it’s not an appropriate way to speak in school or in polite conversation with friend’s parents.

And of course it changes over time as well. I might have already told you about the boy at school everyone called Wog. A teacher lectured us once because she was horrified and we were all amused and baffled. At the end of the lecture the boy piped up and said, “But that’s my name, Miss…”

11 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 02.23.14 at 10:27 am }

Oh, ass is the other one. I have many memories of adults fondly calling someone, especially kids, an ass, meaning, they were being silly (asinine). “Oh, well, you’re an ass, aren’t you!” (smile, cluck tongue). They taking the nuances into account properly here? Because you can’t hear the smiling and tongue-clucking very easily over twitter.

12 Lori Lavender Luz { 02.23.14 at 6:46 pm }

I buck the trend. I’m more likely to let fly IRL (not much, though) when the words aren’t captured for all to see.

I’m more circumspect about what I put online, for the reason you say. Regarding the personal slurs, it’s also due to the Golden Rule thingy.

13 April { 02.23.14 at 7:10 pm }

Ooh, good post! It seems we have a similar bar when it comes to cursing.

I curse like a sailor at home, meaning my home, my parents’ home, my in-laws. Those are all anything goes kind of places. I tone it down when out in public, and I very rarely curse online, anywhere. It just seems easier to me to flip the cursing switch to off when online so as not to confuse my real message or turn a post into a lecture. It’s simply a way to avoid unnecessary conflict. Plus, typing equals writing for me, and writing means using all those words that are available, something we just don’t do in everyday conversation.

But while I curse way less online, the numbers do make sense to me. I mean, people use social networks to vent and critique, so of course the cursing will increase. Perhaps my average will go up–I decided to go back to Facebook yesterday, after a two year hiatus. Probably not. I’m sure I’ll forget I put the app on my phone.

14 JustHeather { 02.24.14 at 3:11 pm }

I monitor myself quite a bit online as I don’t want my words to be recorded for all time. I never was one to swear much, there just wasn’t much need for it. But I have recently realized that I do swear/curse more at work, esp right now while things are really stressed. 🙁 As for at home…we’ve got a little minah bird who is learning everything…thankfully when I fell on a drop of milk and let out a loud f*ck, he thought I was quacking like a duck. I try to use use “drat” from now on.

As a teen, I remember “That’s so gay” was very popular to say. My parents hated it and so I didn’t say it around them and then grew out of it. I wouldn’t dare say it today, except as a flash back joke with friends.. To be young again.
It also took me a sec to figure 15. A word that definitely raises my hackles. Along with the n-word. I still have a vision in my head of a Kenyan friend explaining to me when she had a kid say it to her and the parents didn’t correct the kid. She corrected the kid herself. She was very upset and I don’t blame her, although I don’t have experience of it myself.

Words are powerful things.

15 Tracie { 02.24.14 at 3:23 pm }

I curse about the same amount on line as I do in real life (which is not that often either place). I guess I write the same way I talk? Or the other way around?

#20 is a word I have spoken up to children and a couple of adults about in the past. I guess I’ve said a lot about it to my family as well, because recently my daughter (respectfully, but firmly) informed an adult who said that word in her hearing why it was a hurtful word. It was a proud mom moment.

I don’t understand the playful calling other women whore thing. Or bitch. I know people do it, and I know they aren’t offended by it, but I don’t think I could ever get used to a friend calling me those words. It’s not my thing.

16 St. Elsewhere { 02.25.14 at 2:45 am }

LOL, I have a very evolved set of curse ethics.

I am likely to say “Shit” in both online and offline world. I am likely to use “bitch” in offline world, but would attempt to avoid it in the online world.

I am likely to hiss “fuck” in both the online as well as offline world, but I absolutely despise (as in loathe loathe loathe) when someone adds a pre-fix to the “fucker” version of this word.

And more than anything else, I am likely to call someone an idiot, which I find as a very mild form of anything that you can call someone in the cuss-form.

17 Hop { 02.25.14 at 11:58 am }

OK, I’ll admit to loving #1, maybe a little too much. It’s so versatile — a verb, noun, and adjective all in one! It emphasizes what’s important (You’re fucking awesome!) and adds a little spice to the mundane (Where the fuck did my other sock go?).

But I take my cues from the context (how formal or casual it is) and the people around me, which means swearing much, much less online than at home with a good friend. Also, swearing can be lazy. When I’m writing, I’m trying to be more precise than in speech, and non-swear words usually do the job best.

It’s interesting that many of the words on this list don’t really seem like swear words, just sexual ones. I can’t imagine some of them being used outside that context. When some of them are, like #10 and #16, used to insult people by linking them with female anatomy … well, those are probably the words that bother me the most.

18 twangy { 02.27.14 at 12:39 pm }

Hah. I love the idea of you telling The Young People how they are misusing these words. So brilliant.

I’d love to be able to curse but sadly I mostly am not good at it. I used to curse in Italian, (which is highly recommended as a cursing language), and my flatmate used to say: No, say it loudly, like you mean it, otherwise it sounds weird.

Also, the equivalent word for no 16 on the list is FIGA in Italian, and is very much a positive word albeit in a sort of macho sexist way.

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