What the #*&Amp;+?! Research Finds Preference for Swear Words Is Regional

What Is Blasphemy in the Bible?
Dimitri Otis / Getty Images

You've probably never thought much about this, but across the U.S. there is a huge variation in preference for swear words, and in how frequently certain swear words are used by the population. Linguist Jack Grieve has put hard data behind what for many years has been anecdotally noted by mining Twitter for swear words and mapping the concentration of their use by location.

Grieve used statistical analysis to map the frequency of use of a variety of swear words, a couple of gendered and sexualized slurs, and a couple of "clean" alternatives to swear words, including "darn" and "gosh."

What Grieve found, among other trends, is that the word "assh*le" is most heavily favored by people in the northeast U.S.; "sh*t" predominates across the eastern seaboard and the south; and "darn" is a selective midwest phenomenon.

Read on to see maps of these and other words, and for some sociological insights on the trends depicted.

People in the Northeast Love "Assh*le"

Jack Grieve

Grieve's research found that, at least on Twitter, preference for the word "assh*le" is concentrated in the northeast. Having grown up in New Hampshire, this author can testify to its prominence in everyday talk. The word is so common and beloved that it was adapted by those in N.H. to denigrate people from south of the state's border as "Massholes."

Of course, the data also show that the word is in use in most places around the country, and in some places, with a similarly high frequency. But what also stands out from the data is how uncommon the word is among those living in the southeastern states.

A note about the scale depicted on the maps: it shows spatial clustering of the terms, with dark blue indicating where a given term is used the least, the pale middle part of the scale showing where it occurs with standard frequency relative to other regions, and the dark orange showing where spatial clustering (or use in a given region) is greatest.

"Sh*t" is Most Popular Along Eastern Seaboard and Southern U.S.

Jack Grieve

Grieve's analysis of use of the word "sh*t" on Twitter shows that linguistic preference for it clusters along the eastern seaboard and through the southern states. While it is used commonly in some other places, it turns out that use of the word is not particularly common in much of the U.S. 

Who Drops the F-Bomb? People on the Coasts

Jack Grieve

Okay, not exclusively people on the coasts, but according to Grieve's analysis, "f*ck" is used far more frequently by people in coastal states, and along the southern U.S. border. The blue spots clustered within the borders point to "cold zones" where use of the word on Twitter is quite uncommon.

In the U.S., Just a Few Hot Spots for the "Mother" of All Swears

Jack Grieve

Seemingly popularized over the last couple of decades by actor Samuel L. Jackson (there's a YouTube compilation of every time he has uttered the word on film, and it's more than three and a half minutes long), "motherf@cker" is not commonly used on Twitter by most people in the U.S.. However, Grieve's analysis found that there are a few hot spots, shown in orange on the map.

"Bitch" Popular in Eastern and Southern States

Jack Grieve

"Bitch" is probably one of the most controversial and contested swear words, because of its specific use to denigrate women and girls, and commonly also today, to emasculate men and boys. Because of feminist backlash against the term (despite the fact that some have positively reclaimed it), it's not surprising that linguist Jack Grieve found that it is not in common use on Twitter in most places in the U.S. However, the data show that its use proliferates along the eastern seaboard (excepting New England), and through the southern states.

Who Uses the Word "C@nt"?

Jack Grieve

Grieve's analysis of Twitter shows that the word is shunned in many southern states, but is used at great frequency by people living in the northeast U.S., among a few other places around the country. Across the country the data show that it is regularly in use in many places.

"F@ggot" Most Commonly Used in the West

Jack Grieve

Given the rise of the queer civil rights movement in recent years, and increasing acceptance of homosexuality and queerness across the country, it's refreshing to see that use of "f@ggot" on Twitter is not especially common. But, there are still quite a few hot spots for the word around the country, particularly in the western states.

It's worth noting here that sociologist C.J. Pascoe found in her study of the use of the words "f@g" and "f@ggot" among California high school students, that it is rarely used to denigrate homosexuality, and instead frequently used to make a critique of a failed attempt at being normatively masculine. So it's possible that the common usage of this word is more a gendered issue than a sexualized one, but we'd need a deeper form of data analysis to come to a conclusion on that.

Southerners Give a Damn!

Jack Grieve

Grieve's study found that "damn" is not a very commonly used word on Twitter, and in many places its use is far below the average. But use of it is concentrated in the south eastern states. Its usage also corresponds to the geography of the Bible Belt, so it's possible that its usage is religious in nature.

"Darn It!" The Polite Version of Swearing Peaks in Midwest

Jack Grieve

As amusing as it is to analyze regional preferences for swearing, Grieve also had the presence of mind to track where people use what are considered polite substitutes for swears, like using "darn" instead of "damn." He found that use of "darn" on Twitter is spatially concentrated in towns throughout the midwestern states. 

"Gosh" Used More by Bible Belt Tweeters

Jack Grieve

It's not especially surprising that use of "gosh" on Twitter is clustered in Bible Belt territory, too, given that it is a commonly used substitute for "God". Using it allows the tweeter to avoid "taking the Lord's name in vain," and thus to remain in good standing in their religious community.