Coprolalia, Part 1: The Nature of Coprolalia

Ken Shyminsky, a former vice president of the Greater Toronto Chapter of the Tourette Syndrome Foundation of Canada, draws upon his personal experiences as an teacher and student with Tourette Syndrome to help children with TS and related disorders. He also has Tourette himself and is the founder of the website Neurologically Gifted.

The term coprolalia is used to describe involuntary vocalizations that are obscene or socially inappropriate.  Coprolalia includes swearing, but also includes saying things that are culturally taboo, socially unacceptable or inappropriate because of age or context.

For example, a child using any kind of obscene language, or anyone saying negative comments about another’s ethnicity or physical appearance. Coprolalia may also refer to these phrases or words being said inside the persons head or kept to themselves which also causes internal distress for the individual.

Coprolalia can be a symptom of some neurological disorders as well as certain brain injuries.  Coprolalia occurs  as a symptom in only about 10 percent of people with Tourette Syndrome. Copopraxia are gestures and actions of the same nature as coprolalia.

Coprolalia can occur in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as well as Tourette Syndrome.  People who have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as well as Tourette Syndrome have a greater struggle as the two disorders may interact with and/or perpetuate coprolalia.   The obsession with performing, (or not performing), the inappropriate behavior provokes the urge to perform the inappropriate behavior and vice versa.

Coprolalia is a particularly distressing symptom for people with Tourette Syndrome.  The nature of coprolalia, being socially inappropriate, makes everyone involved uncomfortable, that is, until everyone understands what coprolalia is and why it occurs.

Education about coprolalia being involuntary and a symptom of a neurochemical disorder is essential to bring about acceptance and understanding.  Coprolalia can be a lifelong struggle  and the individual deserves understanding and acceptance.  Coprolalia must be accepted by the family.

People with coprolalia feel embarrassed and ashamed of their symptoms.  Often, the response to coprolalia and the lack of understanding and acceptance from other people amplifies the individual’s shame and embarrassment, leading to isolation.  Fear of performing the tic in public and being constantly scrutinized and judged may also lead to isolation and depression.  In addition, it drives the individual to constantly think about their coprolalia symptoms, in turn making the coprolalia occur more often.  In this way,  benign symptoms of coprolalia become malignant due to the stigmatization and judgment of the onlookers.

Difficulties in Understanding Coprolalia

Unfortunately, coprolalia may be expressed in complex and variable ways, further leading to the misunderstanding of the involuntary nature of the behavior.

A Misunderstanding of Provocation

Coprolalia, like other tics, is prompted by a premonitory urge. For example, racial slurs may be prompted by seeing a person of a particular race, sexual comments may be prompted by seeing a member of the opposite sex.  Seeing these people reminds the brain of forbidden/unacceptable words.  Coprolalia is somehow co-exists alongside the faulty autoinhibitory functions within the brain.  When faced with a person of the opposite sex, the sufferer may quickly think “I’d better not say “_______”.

By thinking this thought, the individual has put the offensive phrase into their own mind.  He/she will then be stuck with the phrase in their head.  Coupled with poor impulsivity control, it can appear as if the person is willingly thinking the thought and then saying it without concern for the other person’s feelings.

In truth, coprolalia has no relationship or meaning to the observed person and is not a personal attack.  There just happened to be something within the environment that prompted that particular urge.  For the person with coprolalia, they struggle to prevent themselves from saying or doing the worst possible thing in the particular situation.

Imagine having to sit in a church or other place of worship.  The mere sight of religious icons evokes meaning in our brains.  This meaning cues the brain and conjures words (good and bad).  A sufferer of coprolalia will focus on restraining themselves from shouting offensive words.  This focus will bring these words to the tip of his/her tongue, and eventually out of the mouth.

The struggle is internal and far more painful for the individual than those who may overhear the utterance. Coprolalia is not directed at other people nor intended to cause harm or fear in others.  Oddly enough, the more a sufferer wants to STOP saying an offensive word, the more likely they are to say it – because of their focus.

Incorporation into Speech

Another confusing aspect about the expression of coprolalia involves the incorporation of coprolalia into regular speech and actions.  This phenomenon is more common in children.  The urge to say the word may be strong enough that it will occur within the context of speech.  The tic is somewhat satisfied for the child however, it very much appears as being a voluntary addition.

Consider the F_ word as a vocal tic that is coprolalia.  The child may voluntarily slip it into speech in a fluent way, satisfying the tic but being unaware of how voluntary the tic appears to be to others.  For example, “That f_ing dog just f_ing barked at me”.  This is very difficult for others (especially parents and teachers) to understand.

I remember telling my child, when coprolalia began for him, to just pick one or two of the words and say them out of a sentence so people would more easily identify it as coprolalia!  This strategy didn’t work because he doesn’t have the option to choose which tics he says,  and because he never really understood why it would make a difference how or when it was expressed.  To him, slipping it into speech was more “normal” than randomly shouting a bad word.

Intensity and Frequency Changes

Another difficult characteristic of coprolalia that further impedes understanding is that stress increases tic frequency and intensity.   Parents of children with Tourette Syndrome are very familiar with this phenomena.

Both negative or positive stress occupy mental attention.  In these situations, a child has less mental energy to suppress his/her tic symptoms.  As a result, more tics are expressed, to conserve mental energy for all the other things that are consuming the child’s mental resources.  Consider that anger, disappointment and frustration are major stresses.  When a child attends to these negative emotions, they do not expend energy on suppressing their tics or coprolalia.

In a situation that provokes strong feelings of anger in the child, tics and coprolalia escalate.  In this type of situation, you will have a child who is angry, using inappropriate language, and louder because you have asked them to do something like “Come do your homework now, please.”  What looks like a child reacting disrespectfully and aggressively may simply be a child reacting to a strong emotion, increasing tic expression due to the displacement of mental focus to the emotion.

This situation is extremely difficult to manage and creates intense stress on families living with neurological disorders.  Education about the disorders, symptoms, and their expressions lay the groundwork to understanding, managing and accepting coprolalia.

In Coprolalia Part 2, strategies for understanding, accepting and managing coprolalia will be discussed.  Understanding coprolalia and the nature of its expression will be essential when employing strategies and educating others about your or your child’s symptoms.


  1. Recently I’ve been having the urge to say f-word but I’m able to control and just have it repeat in my head. The only thing is, is that I get a lot of tension in my chest and throat. Would it be Coprolalia or just like a form of intrusive thoughts from OCD?

  2. Here’s the problem. Our grandson, now 13, has a chromosome deletion that has manifested in various developmental issues. He’s very sociable and has always been an exceptional reader with a good vocabulary. But he can’t tie his shoes or make change. You could meet him in the grocery store and not notice much at all at first. But he’s definitely not your normal 13 year old. Has always been in special needs classes. So… our daughter is at wits end. Every MORNING he displays what can only, to me, be considered coprolalia. My son had Tourettes and we learned about this side of the syndrome even though he didn’t have it. He follows our daughter around spouting “penis penis penis”…. or “stick my finder up my butt”, etc. No matter what she tries to do, he keeps going. If she puts him in his room, he comes out and continues. This goes on for about an hour. He takes a pill to, I think, help with concentration at school. The behavior stops after the pill. He’s not what you would consider “hyper”, at all, although he’s always had this thing where he asks questions to which he knows the answer. Grandma is baking a cake. “What are you doing, Grandma?” “Are you baking a cake?” Yes, Jack. “Do you like to do that, Grandma?”. Later…. “are you baking a cake, Grandma?”
    He has no physical Tourette-like tics that I’ve ever noticed. This morning behavior is causing our daughter great stress. She doesn’t seem to want a “diagnosis” although I’ve tried to tell her this could be Tourette or coprolalia. Your thoughts or opinion would be really appreciated. Thanks,

    • Classic copralalia phrases Rick. There’s probably other tics that aren’t noticed. A diagnosis helps others including your family understand him better.

    • To this person with the grandson with the chromosome deletion, please tell me what this is technically called. My son has severe tourette’s, OCD, developmental disabilities and the list goes on, but I feel there are things in the family undiagnosed and combined with the tourette’s it’s extremely difficult for any doctor to treat. He is now 14, and all his issues have just gotten worse as he has gotten older. Nobody can really relate. I also have a daughter who has to deal with the inappropriate sexual comments and actions, as do I, but yet he is delayed and on top of it all doesn’t fully understand what he is even saying, or why it is really wrong.

    • Very interesting and helpful information about the characteristics of Coprolalia. Thank you for this information.

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