Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Gender and Swearing: A Free Listing Approach

Gender and Swearing: A Free Listing Approach
Beth A. Kersey

This paper explores the topic of gender and swearing in a modern context and outlines research by Jennifer Coates, Deborah Tannen, Karyn Stapleton, and others. This research uncovers gendered differences in the knowledge of swear words. Do men and women have similar quantities of swears in their mental inventory? Are there prevalent differences between women’s salient swearwords versus men’s? What are the most and least popular swear words known by men and women? Do women use swear words as much as men do?

This research included a free listing survey approach. Twenty men and twenty women participated via online and face-to-face communication. Participants were asked to write a list of swear words that they knew, taking only a few moments. The participants were not given any guidelines as to what defines a swear word. The free list approach gives the participants an opportunity to interpret the definition of swear word. The results of these lists provided the means for an in-depth data analysis of gender and swearing.

The findings of the free list survey answered the original research questions, and also offered additional interesting information on the topic of gender and swearing. First, the male participants provided a combined total of 382 swear words and the females provided 284. Although it is clear that the men provided more swear words, they included many of the same swears as the female participants included in their lists. Secondly, the females more readily participated in the free list survey. Male participants, both in online and face-to-face communication, needed reassurance that the request for a list of swear words was not a joke. Furthermore, certain swear words like “bitch” and “ass” were included in almost every list, yet they seem to have become milder or acceptable swears. Finally, male participants predominantly listed racial slurs; only two of the twenty females included racial slurs while eleven of the twenty males included racial slurs. In addition, no participants, male or female, listed a racial slur in the first five swears listed, but included these swears near or at the bottom of their lists.

Future research on gender and swearing will include an in-depth hypothesis regarding the specific use of racial slurs. In addition, it would be interesting to perform conversational analysis of women and men using swear words in everyday situations.


April 17, 2009 - Posted by | abstract


  1. Very interesting! Is the assumption that the first (or first few) items listed will likely be the most popular, and if so, was that assumption supported by your results?

    Comment by J. Pope | April 18, 2009 | Reply

    • Yes, my assumption was that the first few listed are the most well-known. My results show that “fuck” is the most salient term mentioned on the free list survey. Thirty-eight of forty participants mention “fuck”, or a variation of the word, on their lists. 75% of male participants and 50% of female participants wrote “fuck” within the first five listed. The word “cunt” was also found to be quite salient. A higher percentage of women listed it within the first five curses, and nearly all men included it somewhere on their lists. More tabulation of the data collected is forthcoming.

      Comment by B. Kersey | April 21, 2009 | Reply

  2. I’m curious as to whether there was any control in the survey for variables other than gender – what information do you have about the respondents, and where were they recruited from? Interesting, in any case!

    Comment by Elanya | April 20, 2009 | Reply

    • Well, the participants are mainly friends and fellow students. I recruited most of the participants through my contacts on facebook. Others are people I see on a semi-regular basis. All the participants are between the ages of 20 and 32. Most of the participants are white, although there are a few African Americans and Latinos.

      Comment by B. Kersey | April 21, 2009 | Reply

  3. This is a very interesting abstract, not to mention topic of conversation. I am curious though, do you assume that men swear more than women? The line, “Do women use swear words as much as men do?,” seems to suggest that there is a presumption that men swear more than women. Also, I thought the results you found on the listings of racial slurs was fascinating! Do you think more men listed racial slurs than women because men know more racial slurs than women? Did you collect any information on race to compare what racial slurs were listed by race? I know you focused on gender, but it would be interesting to see how or if race was a factor. Very interesting work!

    Comment by Tina Patterson | April 20, 2009 | Reply

    • Sorry! See comment #4 for the reply.

      Comment by B. Kersey | April 21, 2009 | Reply

  4. I suppose I did assume initially that men swear more than women do. Maybe this is because women are taught early on to be lady-like and polite, which usually does not include the use of profanity. The free listing approach was not able to fully answer this question because writing a swear word on a list is very different from using it in a conversation. However, this approach did show that women know just as many swears as men. Although the men listed about a hundred more curses than the women, there were only a few swears (usually racial slurs) that were not found somewhere on a female list. The racial slurs aspect of the free list was very surprising. It may be the case that men know more racial slurs than women, and I suppose my data supports that conclusion. I am also interested in finding out why these slurs were at the bottom of the lists. I believe that people may categorize racial slurs seperately from the rest of their swear word inventory, even though they still fall under the general category of swear words. This kind of research would have to consider race as a factor.

    Comment by B. Kersey | April 21, 2009 | Reply

  5. on comment four: as a participant in the free-list survey, i listed racial slurs toward the bottom because of the criteria, i don’t know if they are necessarily “swears” for the purpose of this research. however, if i were listing according to offensiveness, they would definitely be at the top. by nature, racial slurs are the most offensive language. due to familiarity and, maybe, the pervasive hip-hop culture, i would actually list terms such as A-rab, kike, and wetback (i don’t think i put that in my list) as MORE offensive than nigger, followed closely by cunt and other such misogynistic (sp?) terms.

    Comment by brian k | May 26, 2009 | Reply

  6. I would be vary of using Jennifer Coates or Deborah Tannen as ANY kind of sources in matters linguistic.

    See the crushing review of Mark Liberman (although Coates does have a sense of humour):

    Then a couple of postings on sci.lang:


    Don’t fall prey to the same kind of overinterpretation as Coates and Tannen.

    Comment by linguist in hiding | June 23, 2009 | Reply

  7. my english language project is An investigation into how attitudes towards certain swear words and the use of taboo language differ according to age and gender so far i have found that older peole and women generally find sweraing more offensive and tend not to use it in their everyday lexicon, however gender neutral terms such as shit, bastard and jesus/christ are considred alot less offensive and are used by most. Whereas males tend to use words like cunt to create prestige within groups of males, however i’m a bit stuck on my analysis of questionnaire results and feel like swearing, gender neutral and otherwise

    Comment by Amy Babington | February 4, 2010 | Reply

    • After completing this project I learned that it would take a lot more data than what I collected in the freelists to really say something definitively about this subject. Maybe you can use the information that you gathered to formulate more specific questions for future research. What kinds of things did you ask on your questionnaire?

      Comment by B.Kersey | March 7, 2010 | Reply

  8. The amount of swear words collected for both males and females (the stats) were these all different words? such as if shit was mentioned by all participants was it counted once or 20 times to get to that figure of 382?

    Comment by Sam | December 1, 2011 | Reply

    • where can i accsess the entire article from? :(

      Comment by Jhon | May 4, 2012 | Reply

  9. upon first scrutiny, this may seem like a tedious question but where can I accsess this paper from?

    Comment by Gilberto | May 2, 2012 | Reply

  10. I would be very interested in reading your paper too, so it would be helpful if you could provide us with a link enabling us to download it. I have just finished a survey aiming at analyzing the same kind of things as Amy Babington (comment n°7).
    What correlates with your data is the fact that among the 171 informants I took into account for my survey, absolutely no one, no matter the age or the gender, reported racial slurs as the swear words they used most. I did not ask my informants to make a list of ALL the expletives they knew, I simply asked them to list the ones they used most, so it was pretty striking to see that these kinds of words did not appear, which strengthens the idea that racial slurs do not seem to be considered as the most used ones, since in your survey they appeared at the bottom of the list, as if they were not the kinds of words one would think about first.
    Another striking result in my study was the fact that among my female informants, 18% reported using “bloody” regularly, whereas absolutely no man reported using it, which MIGHT be interpreted as a way for women to be able to use “strong language” without being stigmatized and losing of their femininity when swearing since swear words related to religion considerably lost of their impact, which could also correlate with your survey (and many others…), and the fact that you mentionned that “women are taught early on to be lady-like and polite”.

    Anyway, it has been quite a long time since you originally posted this abstract, so I do not know if you still come by from time to time, but if you, or any other person interested in the topic, would like to discuss it further and share ideas, I would be glad if you could send me an e-mail at the address I created for my survey, that is:

    Best regards

    Michaël G.

    Comment by Michaël G. | September 5, 2012 | Reply

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