Think for a moment and try to remember all the way back to childhood that very first time you repeated something you overheard an adult say… except when the same word came from your lips, all action stopped. The awkward response from your parents was as unexpected as it was unfamiliar, yet it told you plenty. You knew you’d done something extraordinary, and at the same time, you understood the power of a simple word. In a recent study published in the American Journal of Psychology, a team of researchers exploring taboo words found that learning to swear is a natural aspect of linguistic development. Even more, they discovered that children swear differently than adults and attach more negative meaning to potty mouth phrases.

To better understand the emergence of adult-like swearing in children, five researchers recorded taboo words spoken by adults and overhead in shopping malls, bars, restaurants, at work, at home — everywhere — during the course of a single year. They documented who, where, when, and what was said. Next, a set of seven researchers similarly recorded over the course of a year children’s utterances whenever they spontaneously occurred. In this case, though, they took careful note of each child’s age and context.

What data did the researchers collect? A total of 3,190 taboo utterances were recorded for the adults, with men contributing 55 percent of the total. Not only were they more inclined to curse, but men also proved themselves more colorful in their expressions, drawing on 60 words or phrases, while women generally drew on about 55 words or phrases. Despite these gender differences, men and women were found to be alike in terms of their preferences, with certain words or phrases appearing more frequently than others: f***, sh**, and (oh my) God.

Meanwhile, the researchers recorded 1,187 taboo words or phrases uttered by children, with boys overall more likely to say bad words than girls (though between the ages of 3 and 4, the girls outpaced the boys not only in frequency but also in the size of their bad words vocabulary). As they grew older, children inevitably began to swear more like their elders and instead of a great variety of phrases, they started using a limited number of words more frequently. Over time, they even let go of those perennial favorites, “poopy” and “fart.”

In a second study, the researchers explored how much people reacted to taboo words by asking children and adults to rate the level of negative feeling for individual words and phrases. They found that adults and children, even when they came from the same home, had different conceptions of what constitutes taboo speech. Plus, the children found the mild taboo words more inappropriate than did adults.

“Our data suggest that, because it reflects a routine part of linguistic competence, children’s knowledge of taboo words is normal,” wrote the authors in their conclusion. The authors also stressed that a sense of taboo tended to be enforced in the earliest years of school. During that same time, children not only widened their vocabularies but also learned the ways in which society expects different behavior in different surroundings. First developing a potty mouth and then learning not to use it apparently is simply part of the natural order of growing older.

Source: Jay KL, Jay TB. A Child’s Garden of Curses: A Gender, Historical and Age-related Evaluation of the Taboo Lexicon. American Journal of Psychology. 2013.