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Baby’s First Profanity

Most parents remember their child’s first word, and that’s not just because that word is often “daddy” or “mommy.” “Baabaa,” “bye” or the ominous “uh-oh” can also be a baby’s initial step into the world of words. But how many parents, I wonder, remember when their child first offered them a four-lettered linguistic gift?

A study published last year in the American Journal of Psychology collected “data about the emergence of adult like swearing in children.” The authors, Timothy Jay and Kristin Jay, recorded observations of children ages 1 through 12 and adults using taboo utterances, which “were described as offensive words and phrases (e.g. fuck), insults or name calling (e.g. douchebag), and clinical terms (e.g. penis), as well as abusive expressions (e.g. I hate you).”

The study found that, overall, boys had a slightly larger repertoire of bad words than girls (95 compared to 80). But that repertoire varied by age. By age 3 or 4, girls were using 40 taboo words while boys were using 34; but among 7- and 8-year-olds, boys were using 45, and the number of bad words girls were using slipped down to 25.

If you’re wondering about how the frequency of words in a child’s vocabulary can decline, the breakdown provides some clues. For 1- and 2-year-olds, the most frequently used taboo word was “poop” or “poopy,” but it quickly falls in usage as children become older. The researchers’ data showed that “the taboo lexicon emerges early and shifts over time” in such a way that as kids age, they have more bad words in common with adults.


The study’s method was similar to one used by the same researchers in a study conducted in the 1980s, which estimated the prevalence of different profanities. It turns out — according to a comparison between the two papers — that kids are swearing more than they used to, and adults are swearing a lot more than they used to. Take, for example, the two most commonly used curse words, “fuck” and “shit.” In the 2013 study, adults used them 41 percent more than they did 27 years ago. By contrast, children ages 1 through 12 said the two words 10 percent more than they did in the 1980s.

Mona Chalabi is data editor at the Guardian US, and a columnist at New York Magazine. She was previously a lead news writer for FiveThirtyEight.