Friday, January 13, 2012

Profane Vulgarity and Swear Words

The words vulgar and profane are often used interchangeably, but they each have a distinct meaning. We can be excused this minor infraction, because dictionary definitions for each word almost always reference the other. I did some research in the pursuit of clarity, and here is what I came up with.


I remember as a young man seizing upon a book in an Asuncion bookstore with the title “Canciones Vulgares,” which means in English “Vulgar Songs.” My glee at the prospect of expanding my musical repertoire to the seamier side of The Castilian was deflated upon learning that the title employed the more traditional use of the word. It was a book of indigenous folksongs expressed in the local vernacular rather than formal Academia Real Spanish.

1. Crudely indecent.
a. Deficient in taste, delicacy, or refinement.
b. Marked by a lack of good breeding; boorish. See Synonyms at common.
c. Offensively excessive in self-display or expenditure; ostentatious: the huge vulgar houses and cars of the newly rich.
3. Spoken by or expressed in language spoken by the common people; vernacular: the technical and vulgar names for an animal species.
4. Of or associated with the great masses of people; common.

Here’s some interesting history on the word vulgar from The Free Dictionary:
The word vulgar now brings to mind off-color jokes and offensive epithets, but it once had more neutral meanings. Vulgar is an example of pejoration, the process by which a word develops negative meanings over time. The ancestor of vulgar, the Latin word vulgaris (from vulgus, "the common people"), meant "of or belonging to the common people, everyday," as well as "belonging to or associated with the lower orders." Vulgaris also meant "ordinary," "common (of vocabulary, for example)," and "shared by all." 
 An extension of this meaning was "sexually promiscuous," a sense that could have led to the English sense of "indecent." Our word, first recorded in a work composed in 1391, entered English during the Middle English period, and in Middle English and later English we find not only the senses of the Latin word mentioned above but also related senses. What is common may be seen as debased, and in the 17th century we begin to find instances of vulgar that make explicit what had been implicit. Vulgar then came to mean "deficient in taste, delicacy, or refinement." From such uses vulgar has continued to go downhill, and at present "crudely indecent" is among the commonest senses of the word. (

1. having or indicating contempt, irreverence, or disrespect for a divinity or something sacred
2. (Christianity / Ecclesiastical Terms) not designed or used for religious purposes; secular
3. (Christianity / Ecclesiastical Terms) not initiated into the inner mysteries or sacred rites
4. vulgar, coarse, or blasphemous profane language

So profanity is more of a taking The Lord’s name in vain or speaking irreverently about sacred things, while vulgarity is broader and includes speech that is boorish, distasteful, obscene or otherwise offensive. Bathroom humor, slang terms for human activity and body parts, swear words and so forth are more properly classified as vulgarities rather than profanities.

Swearing, Cussing and other Expletives

To swear has always meant to take an oath, but it now has negative connotations as well: swear words, swear at…
The secondary sense of "use bad language" (early 15c.) developed from the notion of "invoke sacred names." Swear-word is Amer.Eng. colloquial from 1883. (Online Etymology Dictionary)
For a quick history on “cuss” (probably came from curse) and “expletive,” as well as a short history on the the F-Word, see the Online Etymology Dictionary.


Always On Watch said...

Just this week, I had to clarify what "the vulgate Bible" meant. Students were naturally confused because of how the word "vulgar" is used today.

Speedy G said...

I was always of the impression that "vulgar" implied a "class distinction"... and so that if a peasant or "common" person touched an object belonging to an aristocrat, the object touched (say a sword) became "profaned"... while the peasant remained forever "vulgar".

ie - Vulgar Marxism. Opinions (profaned thought objects) upon the subject of Marxism not held by the elite "Revolutionary Vanguard."

Anonymous said...

Are you trying to tell me something, Silver?


dmarks said...

As for "Vulgar Marxism", Karl Marx liked to use the N-word to bash people of black African racial heritage. Vulgar, profane, or just nasty? You decide.

Silverfiddle said...

Jack: I don't remember what sparked it. I wrote it awhile back for some reason I can't remember.

Writing about politics all the time is tiring. I'd love to do more stuff like this.

Ducky's here said...

Yeah dmarks and Martin Luther was an antisemite to make Hitler proud. Now where are we with this boorish (as opposed to vulgar) back and forth.

dmarks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Trekkie4Ever said...

Well, I learned something new today, thanks!

Anonymous said...

That's why I write on various topics. I find myself being redundant when all I want to talk about is politics.

Plus, I'm of the opinion that 99% of readers are already dead set on what they believe to be true and untrue, so my 2 cents is either going to be easily received by those who think like me, amounting to a pat on the back, or wholly rejected by those who disagree with me.

Z said...

leave it to Ducky to take the worst from Luther when he only became that way in this very late and yes, vulgar, life. (burping, swearing..the man was no saint!) He began to hate and blame Jews because they just couldn't get his love for Christ and honor Christ as he did; to save their souls. That was his belief and he was over the top with it, no doubt about save souls.
This condemnation is as silly as saying Luther hated the Catholic church!

Funny that you post this today; I just had a heck of an interesting time in a class talking about the differences of ENVY and JEALOUSY. Fascinating stuff with teens.

Anonymous said...

"Sticks and stones
May break my bones,
But names will never harm me."

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

If you call an angel a dirty SOB, that doesn't make it true -- and vice versa.

Taking "OFFENSE" at words or phrases is nothing more than a self-serving attempt to control what others say -- and ultimately what they think.

Vulgarity reflects a coarse, lowbrow, untutored, unimaginative mentality. Frequent use of the classic four-letter words and phrases such as "God damn it!" or "Christ!" as an epithet are not irreligious as much as they are witless.

To show fear of certain expressions, as though mere combinations of letters had the power to do actual harm harks back to the Dark Ages when superstition ruled the peasantry and most of their overlords alike.

The true horror of "taboos" is the implicit power they give anyone in authority who USES the foolish notion that merely saying something those in power -- or those who SEEK power -- don't want to hear should be considered "a crime punishable by ostracism, imprisonment, torture and death.

This modern idea that it ought to be ILLEGAL and WRTHY of SEVERE PUNISHMENT simply not to LIKE this element or that is every bit as unjust, demented and depraved as The Inquisition, The Star Chamber, Cromwell's Persecutions, The Salem Witch Trials, The Persecution of the Huguenots, The Final Solution or Wahabbist Islam.

As Jefferson said, "I am unalterably opposed to any form of tyranny over the mind of Man."

With that in mind I say, DOWN with TABOOS and FUCK Superstition!

The greatest sin is to be boring. Routine use of vulgarity is tedious in the extreme. An occasional dash of it in the midst of otherwise erudite discourse has shock value and may sometimes be refreshing.

~ FreeThinke

Silverfiddle said...

Thanks, FT, although this post had nothing whatsoever to do with censorship.

Finntann said...

Ooh Shiny!...

Dammit, that entymology website is going to keep me distracted for hours.

On the subject of vulgarity:

What the heck else are you going to do when you hit your thumb with a hammer?


Ducky's here said...

You should consider investigating the difference between and private equity firm like Bain Kapital and a venture capital firm which does participate in "creative destruction" with equal accuracy.

Anonymous said...

Hi, SilverFiddle. You left us with nothing to add to the excellent comprehensive set of definitions you posted.

As you may have noticed, I'm big on drawing inferences and ferreting out implications. Not much interested in raw data per se, but hugely concerned with how it might effect daily life and either advance or retard the cause of Civilization.

The desire to censor -- even destroy -- opposition lurks within every human heart. I call it the instinct to tyrannize and subjugate.

No philosophy or established religion is free from that contaminant. It's present wherever two or three gather together for any stated purpose.

In my never humble opinion the desire to stifle others is ignoble and betrays either a weak ego or a weak character -- often both.

It's hard to tolerate out-and-out nonsense and obvious perversity, but we should.

As for persistent insults and badgering, which I admit I would eliminate, if I could, the best thing we could do for ourselves is develop a tougher hide and a greater sense of humor, and learn to take it all in stride. Because like it or not, we're all gonna get it sooner or later.

Context and style are immensely important in considering whether the use of vulgarity or obscene imagery is appropriate or not.

I may have mentioned this before, but Mozart, who wrote much of the most sublimely refined, ingeniously constructed and highly spiritual music ever composed often wrote letters filled with the crudest language imaginable from his time.

The only thing worse than a ruffian spouting four-letter words and cursing God is a prissy, pompous, pretentious, petulant prude.

~ FreeThinke

Anonymous said...

"What the heck else are you going to do when you hit your thumb with a hammer?"

Well, Finntann, you could always just say OUCH! and leave it at that.

I said, YOU could -- not It! ;-}

~ FreeThinke

Anonymous said...

AOW, after I found any number of derogatory references to "he who pisseth against the wall" in the OT, KJV, the term "vulgate" took on an added dimension. It's pretty vulgar after all. Also notably Sado-Masochistic.

Odd how any noticeable reference to the Number Two function seems conspicuously absent.

~ FreeThinke

Anonymous said...

I'm fond of his brief quotation from Shakespeare. It speaks volumes:

"There is nothing either right or wrong, but thinking makes it so."

Don't ask me which one of his plays or poems it comes from, because I don't know.

~ FreeThinke

Finntann said...

Nah! Ouch doesn't cut it.

dmarks said...

Ducky: Bain Capital is spelled with a C. Not to be a spelling pedant, but "capital" is one word you have a consistent problem with spelling correctly.

Fredd said...

I can't believe I actually read this post, Silver. I could have accomplished the same amount of enlightenment by simply cracking open a Webster's dictionary to a random page and read for a minute or two.

But I appreciate the distinction: a profanity is always vulgar, but a vulgarity is only occastionally profane.

Anonymous said...

" ... a profanity is always vulgar, but a vulgarity is only occastionally profane."

YUP! I think that's the response Kurt was looking for, but the point seemed too obvious to me to take note of.

Good for you for articulating it so succinctly.

MY point is that mere combinations of letters and sounds have no innately evil or offensive connotations. It's only the meaning we ATTRIBUTE to those sounds that makes them "bad."

Did you know, for instance, that in German HELL means "bright?"

German can seem very funny to us. I actually knew a fellow whose last name was Schitthaus. His parents were German immigrants, and it just never occurred to them that a name change would be a good idea once they came to America.

All that proves, I guess, is "Once a Schitthaus, always a Schitthaus."

~ FreeThinke

Ducky's here said...

dmarks --- another fringe right winger who is humor and irony challenged.

Think of an ironic reference to a famous economics work.

(((Thought Criminal))) said...

Think of an ironic reference to a famous economics work.

"The Theory and Practice of Oligarchal Collectivism," by Emmanuel Goldstein (the fuckin' neocon)

Silverfiddle said...

FT: And also in German, "Gift" means poison. Wouldn't want to get those mixed up!

Ich habe hier ein gift fur dir

Z said...

Ducky, maybe it's simply that dmarks disagrees with you; I doubt your supposed humor or irony was lost on him.
I hope you show some humor at the blogs soon instead of your constant jabs (remind us which 'rightwingers' haven't humor).....honestly, it would be refreshing.

SF...I'd forgotten that gift/poison. you're right. weird, isn't it. Some 'gift'!

Silverfiddle said...

Z: And having lived in Paris, I know you are well-acquainted with the dangers of mispronouncing "poisson" as you order, especially if you happen to get a vindictively obedient waiter who hates Americans!

Karnak Beakerkin said...

Greeks bearing gifts... might be the origin.

But then again, isn't a post at a blog something of a gift? ;)

Ducky's here said...

Well ,z, it's a constant battle with right wingers trying to set things straight.

Some of them think it was Schumpeter not Marx who coined the concept of creative destruction.

No there is a lot of content to Silverfiddle despite his ignorance of left wing economics but a lot of folks on the right are rather pedantic.

Anonymous said...

" ... isn't a post at a blog something of a gift?"

No necessarily. Often it's merely an incursion.

~ FreeThinke

Anonymous said...

"a lot of folks on the right are rather pedantic."


Sometimes your unconscious humor is so funny I have to wipe the tears from my eyes.

Doesn't it comfort you that at least one person appreciates your unique brand of charm and character?

Those who find you offensive -- or take you seriously -- show a marked deficiency of intellect.

~ FreeThinke

Silverfiddle said...

Marx may have said it first (I have no idea) but Joseph Schumpeter, unlike Marx, actually explicated a coherent theory that still holds up to modern-day scrutiny.

Anonymous said...

Nothing "off-color," "dirty," or profane here -- just a mildly amusing list of terms as defined by R's and D's.

Common Terms Translated


R: Gun Collection = D: Weapons Arsenal

R: Swamp = D: Delicate Wetlands

R: Illegal Alien = D: Undocumented Worker

R: Synthetic Fiber = D: Cruelty-Free Materials

R: Attitude Adjustment = D: Assault and Battery

R: Well-protected = D: Heavily Armed

R: Righteousness = D: Narrow-mindedness or Bigotry

R: Spoils From Legalized Theft = D: Your Fair Share

R: Gun Confiscation Plot = Common Sense Gun Control

R: Fireworks = D: Illegal Hazardous Explosives

R: Unborn Baby = D: Non-viable Tissue Mass

R: Socialism = D: Equal Access to Opportunity

R: High Crime Area = D: Multicultural Community

R: Marxism = D: Fairness or “Social Justice”

R: Self-Employed = "The Rich "

R: Big Government Scheme = D: Progressive Change

R: Bums or Welfare Leeches = D: Disadvantaged Minorities

R: Higher Taxes = D: Community Investment

R: Socialized Medicine = D: Healthcare Reform

R: Conservative = D: Racist Bigot, Homophobe

R: Homeschoolers = D: Truants

R: Good-For-Nothing Dirtbag = D: Oppressed Minority

R: Churchgoing Christian = D: Religious Fanatic

R: Employees or Land Owners = D: Exploiters or "The Rich "

R: NRA Members = D: The Gun Lobby

R: New and Higher Taxes = D: Fiscal Stimulus

R: Mercury-Laden Light Bulbs = D: Eco-Friendly Lighting

Submitted by FreeThinke


Les Carpenter said...

So, I guess we could then define the congress (both sides of the aisle) as vulgar, right?

How sadly vulgar is that?

Always On Watch said...

Odd how any noticeable reference to the Number Two function seems conspicuously absent.

Years ago, a minister told me that the phrase "covered his feet" in the KJV referred to defecation. See #14 HERE.

Speedy G said...

That would certainly place the significance of Jesus' foot washing of his disciples in a different light.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting article, AOW.

in a way it bolsters the point I tried to make above about the absurdity of not discussing The Facts of Life in clear, direct, unequivocal language.

To me euphemisms, while they may be amusing, are silly and rather childish. Who does not know what is meant when someone refers to "The S-Word, " or the F-Word?" Might as well either use the proper term or avoid it altogether. (I favor the latter in most instances.)

At any rate, your article has forever changed my feelings about one segment of Handel's Messiah. I shall never be able to listen to How Beautiful Are the Feet of Them Who Preach the Gospel of Peace without having to stifle an urge to blush and titter.

I wonder if HANDEL understood the "true meaning" of his text?

I rather hope not.

Thanks for the enlightenment. Truth does makes us free(er).

~ FreeThinke

Anonymous said...


TOT: Oh, Mommy look! Me got doo-doo on my shoe-shoe!

MOTHER: Well, do make sure you get the doo-dooi off your shoe-shoe before we go inside, Dodo, unless you want the house to stink like a toto.

TOT: Oh no no! Toto stink like poo-poo.

MOTHER: Well then, rub your shoe-shoe in the grass before I spank your silly ass.

TOT: BOO HOO! BOO HOO! I hate doo doo!