Vulgar and Vulgarity

By Maeve Maddox

The English word vulgar derives from the Latin word for “the common people”: vulgus. Before it took on the meanings of “unrefined, coarse, uncultured, refined, and ill-bred,” vulgar meant “belonging to the mass of people,” or “commonly used or known.”

Nonjudgmental uses of vulgar
For example, what historians now refer to as the Common Era (and some writers still refer to as A.D.) was once called “the Vulgar Era”: the division of historical time inhabited by all living people in common.

“Vulgar Latin” was the form of Latin spoken by the common people, as opposed to the classical Latin spoken and written by the educated classes.

Jerome’s 4th century translation of the Bible into Latin came to be known as the “Latin Vulgate”–not because he wrote it in vulgar Latin, but because it succeeded earlier translations in common use.

Note: Modern speakers equate the term “vulgar language” with obscenity, so if you want to talk about the common speech of a people, the better choice is vernacular: the native speech or language of a particular country or district; also, the informal, colloquial, or distinctive speech of a people or a group.

In mathematics, there’s such a thing as “a vulgar fraction”:

common fractions or vulgar fractions are those in which the numerator and denominator are represented by numbers placed the one above, the other below, a horizontal line.

Vulgar to mean “crude and socially offensive”
Throughout history, wealth and formal education have been confined to a small part of every country’s population. As a result, the language and behavior of these small privileged segments have come to be seen as the civilized norm.

What is vulgar in one culture may be socially acceptable in another. Behavior considered to be vulgar in Western culture includes:

uttering mean, hurtful, insulting remarks
telling offensive jokes in mixed company
invading the personal space of others
making inappropriate sexual remarks
appearing in public without being fully dressed
spitting, farting, etc. in public
talking about intimate personal matters to strangers
talking loudly
screaming, either at a distance to be heard, or in anger or excitement
peppering ordinary speech with obscenities and vulgarities
asking personal questions of mere acquaintances
bragging about possessions and financial worth

The Google Ngram Viewer shows a dramatic drop in the appearance of the word vulgar in printed works from the 19th to the 21st century, but a web search suggests that it may be experiencing a come-back.

Here are some examples:

[Basketball player] fined $75K for homophobic, vulgar remarks

…the Jordan Belfort of the memoirs comes off as a delusional, vulgar fraud.

Toddler taken from vulgar parents after filthy video goes viral

Maine governor makes vulgar remark about lawmaker

Perhaps as the result of an essay by Lee Siegel in The Wall Street Journal, a search of the article’s title, “America the Vulgar,” receives about 10,900,000 results

And not all the web occurrences of vulgar are judgmental; some manufacturers are proud to offer “vulgar, offensive T-shirts” for sale.

Vulgar language occupies an important place in the human psyche. “Bad words” exist in every language ever studied. Uttering an obscenity can relieve strong feelings. A string of curses can prevent physical violence. George Carlin and Richard Pryor knew how to use vulgarity to add force to social criticism, but they did it in the context of closed venues. As Carlin energetically pointed out, context is what makes a word “bad”; context also determines the appropriateness of “inappropriate” language. When vulgar language becomes commonplace, its emotive power is squandered.

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