Casual Fridays: Inside EVERYONE's studio of curse words

For last week's Casual Fridays study we asked respondents to answer James Lipton's famous ten questions from Inside the Actor's Studio. In case you've never seen the show, here are the questions:

What is your favorite word?
What is your least favorite word?
What turns you on?
What turns you off?
What sound or noise do you love?
What sound or noise do you hate?
What is your favorite curse word?
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
What profession would you not like to do?
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

What we wanted to know is if we could identify any recognizable patterns in the answers. Are responses completely random, or do characteristics like age, gender, occupation, and so on, have an effect?

The short answer is "no" -- they don't have much of an effect at all. There was an incredible amount of variety in the responses. Out of 509 respondents, the most popular word, "Love" was the favorite of just 10 -- less than 2 percent of responses. There was a little more regularity with least favorite words. Topping the list was "cunt," with 24 picking it as their least favorite. But still, this represents less than 5 percent of all responses. The next four "least favorite" words were moist (20 respondents), no (16), hate (11) and fart (7). One unexpected word that garnered a large favorable response was onomatopoeia, chosen by 5 respondents as their most favorite word -- the fourth most popular word, in a tie with "thanks" and "awesome." Two respondents each chose some exceptionally unusual words: defenestrate, schadenfreude, and discombobulate. Overall, 39 words were chosen more than once as favorites, representing 115 individuals. This means nearly 400 people chose completely unique words as their favorites.

But of course, you're probably most interested in our respondents favorite curse words. Fair warning: the language gets a lot more graphic from here on out, so don't click through if you don't want to see it.

This graph shows the most popular curse words among our respondents:


As you can see, "Fuck" dominates the list of favorite curse words, with 167. If you include all forms of the word (motherfucker, fuck nuts, Jesus fuck, and so on), the count increases to 219, nearly half of all responses.

Despite the dominance of "fuck," there really wasn't much of a pattern in its usage. There was no significant difference in usage between men and women. Older people were only slightly less likely to use it, as were those who professed a religious belief.

A few respondents self-censored their responses, saying "f*ck" or "f***" instead of "fuck," but once again, there was no pattern in the use of censorship. Even religious believers didn't censor the word more than non-believers.

One interesting comparison we can make is between this study and our curse-word study from 2007, where we asked people to rate 11 words for offensiveness. Here are some of those results:


So how did our results compare? Interestingly, just three of the words from our 2007 study were chosen as anyone's favorite curse word: fuck, cunt, and bitch. Why? If I had to guess, I'd say that people don't choose truly offensive words as their favorites -- thus eliminating nigger and fag. Similarly, relatively inoffensive words like gay, penis, suck, and vagina, were also not chosen. People want their curse words to have some bite to them, just not too much. Arguably, "cunt" might cross the line into true offensiveness, but note that women find the word significantly more offensive than men -- and 17 of the 22 respondents who picked cunt as their favorite curse word were indeed men.

You might also be interested in some of the other top responses. This table gives a snapshot:


For more of the results, you can check out the complete responses here. (Note that the total number of responses doesn't match because we filtered out blank responses, and the survey is still open, so that number is constantly changing)

The final question on our study asked respondents if they had ever been in a play, movie, TV show or other dramatic production. In fact, the responses were almost perfectly divided, with 49.5 percent of respondents answering yes. But do actors respond to the Actor's Studio questions any differently than non-actors? Not in any way we could measure.

(Just a reminder: All Casual Fridays studies are non-scientific. This doesn't mean we can't use scientific principles to assess what's going on, but we can't make general claims based on the results)

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The moist would strike as a curious choice for less favorite word taking into account it doesn't seem to have any particular meaning or idiosyncrasy. I do believe, however, that like the "Jedi" religion phenomenon in the UK, this "moist" phenomenon might be related to the TV series How I met your mother. Do you think it might?

One thing I didn't get a chance to comment on last week is that your phrasing for question 3 is a bit different from Lipton's. He usually says "What turns you on, excites you, inspires you?" I think leaving off the last four words resulted in different answers than you would have gotten otherwise.

Interesting outcome in the profession section: You either love to be a teacher or hate to become one; same applies to nurses. Thank you for the experiment which I enjoyed allot!

By ozlem yuksel-sokmen (not verified) on 12 Dec 2009 #permalink

The choice of moist might also come from Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog, which has a character called Moist. In the commentary he sings a song called "Nobody Wants to Be Moist".

I think there are two separate reasons people picked favorite words, meaning vs. sound. For example, I would guess that people pick things like "thanks" for what they mean, but "onomatopoeia" for how it sounds.

Dave - are you planning to analyze the responses to the other questions at some point in the future?

Back in the day (like 2002), had a gender test that claimed it could predict your gender on a few questions-and I vaugely remember a pivotal question was which was dirtier or worse-- moist or used. I tried to refresh my memory, but the test which has since been removed, since sparknotes caters to a slightly younger crowd now. But here's an archived webpage of the front of the test.

I independently noticed that many women found the word moist offensive when I was having a conversation in college. After that, I did a mini study where I asked a whole bunch of my male and female friends to list a few of their least favorite words. "Moist" was on many of the women's lists but none of the men's. Their negative opinion of it seemed to be because of it's relation to sexual lubrication.

Maybe Dave will break-out percentages for us so we can see if my informal observation holds with larger numbers of respondents.

I found it interesting that my top work choice is #1 overall (& my job for which I have a degree, but have never done, Teaching, is #2) & Accountant was my least favorite job choice & that's #2. Makes me rather average. Naturally, I told my mom & she said "but the other people don't have your writing skills." Gotta love the "unbiased" motherly opinions!

RE: One interesting comparison we can make is between this study and our curse-word study from 2007, where we asked people to rate 11 words for offensiveness. Here are some of those results ... Arguably, "cunt" might cross the line into true offensiveness, but note that women find the word significantly more offensive than men ..."

Although it's not absolutely clear from the data as you present it, there may be a problem with your conclusion that "... women find the word significantly more offensive ...". If you have a look, women found every word in your chart more offensive than men, probably indicating more women responded.

Interesting that so many people chose "writer" as the job they'd most like to try. It's rather unspecific, the word "writer". Do they mean journalist (although that's there as a separate category)? Novelist? Writer of non-fiction books? Movie reviewer? Technical writer? Advertising copywriter?

If, as I suspect, most respondents were thinking "novelist", I wonder if they have thought about what that work would actually involve. Not being published, but sitting down alone with pen or word processor and cranking out a publishable work of, say, 75k words. I suspect that few have the patience/obsessiveness for it.

Regarding the word "moist," I recall that there is a phenomenon regarding certain words being distasteful to some people. I heard about it on the show "A Way With Words," in which they talked about how for some people there are a few words, like "moist," which light up the brain like curse words do. It has to do with the sound of the word. I'd add the link here, but my network at work filters out sites with streaming audio.

Where I used to work about 8 years ago, we were discussing words we didn't like, and one of my coworkers stated she didn't like the words moist and retard. This was way before the TV show/video stream you are talking about. I think the dislike of the word 'moist' predates and perhaps inspired the television phenomenon you mention.

This was an intriguing study that yielded interesting facts. I know several individuals (all women) who despise the word "moist." When asked, they cannot explain their disdain. I feel that this may describe a personal sensation and/or (private) charactersitic of women, in which they reserve for intimate environments. As for males, we have no qualms about expressing our sexual characteristics in an open forum. Just a thought...

and what about the last question? Judging from the respondents religious orientation I would think there would be some very enlightening answers.

@GN (10) "If you have a look, women found every word in your chart more offensive than men, probably indicating more women responded." No, the values on the chart are (mean) ratings therefore higher bars indicate females gave higher mean ratings, not that there were more female respondents.

A fascinating website that I just discovered! In the occupations quiz, it was interesting to see my jobs listed as number 1 and 2. I have worked as a copywriter for a catalog company and as a teacher and tutor. All of these were enjoyable and fun.