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Vulgarity is the quality of being common, coarse, or unrefined. This judgement may refer to language, visual art, social class, or social climbers. John Bayley claims the term can never be self-referential, because to be aware of vulgarity is to display a degree of sophistication which thereby elevates the subject above the vulgar.
Evolution of the term
From the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, "vulgar" simply described the common language or vernacular of a country. From the mid-seventeenth century onward, it began to take on a pejorative aspect: "having a common and offensively mean character, coarsely commonplace; lacking in refinement or good taste; uncultured; ill bred".
In the Victorian age, vulgarity broadly described many activities, such as wearing ostentatious clothing. In a George Eliot novel, one character could be vulgar for talking about money, a second because he criticizes the first for doing so, and a third for being fooled by the excessive refinement of the second. The effort to avoid vulgar phrasing could leave characters at a loss for words. In George Meredith's Beauchamp's Career, an heiress does not wish to make the commonplace statement that she is "engaged", nor "betrothed", "affianced", or "plighted". Though such words are not vulgarity in the vulgar sense, they nonetheless could stigmatize the user as a member of a socially inferior class. Even favored euphemisms such as toilet eventually become stigmatized like the words they replace (the so-called euphemism treadmill), and currently favored words serve as a sort of "cultural capital".
Vulgarity, in the sense of vulgar speech, can refer to language which is offensive or obscene.
The word most associated with the verbal form of vulgarity is "cursing." However, there are many subsections of vulgar words. American psychologist Timothy Jay classifies "dirty words" because it "allows people interested in language to define the different types of reference or meaning that dirty words employ. One can see that what is considered taboo or obscene revolves around a few dimensions of human experience that there is a logic behind dirty word usage." One of the most commonly used vulgar terms in the English language is "fuck".
Curse words, or cursing, have been recognized by religious organizations as being able to cause actual mental and physical harm. More recently such words have separated themselves from their religious meanings, and it is doubtful that those who use curse words imagine the words will bring actual mental or physical harm. Both parties are aware that the cursing is simply an expression, and the ones receiving the curse words or phrase are aware they are being targeted.
Religious curses generally; depending on the listener, location, and their culture, among other things; include the words "damn", "God", and "hell", while words such as "fuck", "shit", and "bitch" are generally seen as non-religious curses in the western world.
- Susan David Bernstein, Elsie Browning Michie (2009). Victorian vulgarity: taste in verbal and visual culture. Ashgate publishing. ISBN 978-0-7546-6405-5.
- John Bayley (1964). "Vulgarity". The British Journal of Aesthetics. 4 (4): 298–304. doi:10.1093/bjaesthetics/4.4.298.
- Susan David Bernstein, Elsie Browning Michie (2009). Victorian vulgarity: taste in verbal and visual culture. Ashgate publishing. pp. 1–10. ISBN 978-0-7546-6405-5.
- Susan David Bernstein, Elsie Browning Michie (2009). Victorian vulgarity: taste in verbal and visual culture. Ashgate publishing. p. 17. ISBN 978-0-7546-6405-5.
- Jay, Timothy (1992). Cursing in America. John Benjamins Publishing Company. p. 9. ISBN 9781556194528.
- Blomquist, Robert F. "The F-Word: A Jurisprudential Taxonomy of American Morals (In a Nutshell)." Santa Clara L. Rev. 40 (1999): 65.
- Jay, Timothy (1992). Cursing in America. John Benjamins Publishing Company. p. 2. ISBN 9781556194528.
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