If You Swear, You’re Not Alone


Hitting your finger instead of the nail with the hammer, of course, you might scream out an expletive. No one would be surprised. After all, hat’s only human. But it turns out not swearing isn’t exclusively human.

Chimpanzees, are fond of swearing too. What’s more, swearing seems to spontaneously emerge just as soon as they – and we – have language and a taboo. It runs out that chimpanzees raised by humans and who have learned sign language and potty trained have used excrement to express their views.

In humans, swear words are related to our taboos as a society. Swear words tend to be based around the things that we think of as sacred, private or slightly shameful: religion, sex and bodily functions. But what constitutes bad language changes from place to place and from time to time and maybe species to species.

When fighting, wild chimps sometimes throw excrement at one another. Orangutans, high up in the trees, have intentionally defecated (and/or urinated) on researchers following them. While not using oral language, they are clearly attempting to deliver a message.

There are reports of lowland gorillas in captivity learning to offer the middle finger as a gesture to one another, modeling what their zookeepers periodically do. What’s interesting is they don’t offer the finger randomly but instead when there’s conflict so they seemingly understand context.

Swearing is a strong signal of emotional intent, so it’s a useful social tool and like humans. Aside from humans, chimpanzees can be among the most intently violent creatures on the planet. Not being able to exactly translate what they’re saying or screaming to one another, some primatologists suggest that chimps do have their versions of expletives when clashing with other chimps.

Do dogs and cats swear? They absolutely do express emotions via their signaling and vocalizations, but are they swearing per se? Probably not – or at least not like we do or our relatives, the great apes, do.