Word Confusion: Obscenity vs Profanity vs Vulgarity

Posted April 2, 2015 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

I got curious one day about the difference between obscenity, profanity, and vulgarity. It’s easier once you break them down to their root words with their base definition: obscene is disgusting, profane was originally an act against religion , and vulgar is simply poor taste, tacky.

The real confusion begins with individuals, for everyone has their own idea of what is obscene, profane, or vulgar. I find Jerry Flynt’s Hustler magazine obscene, Muslim terrorists profane the Qu’ran, and Saddam Hussein’s preference for building palaces over helping his people to be vulgar.

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end. Consider sharing this Word Confusion with friends by tweeting it.

Obscenity Profanity Vulgarity
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com; Dictionary.com

A woodcut in black-and-white with a devil's ass being kissed by a woman

“Compendium Maleficarum Engraving 15” was drawn by Francesco Maria Guazzo in 1608 and scanned by Derek Smootz. It is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The English translation is “The Obscene Kiss”, and it is an obscenity.

Cartoon of a man swearing with the symbols appearing in a chat bubble

“Profaneco” is a derivative work by Smerdis of TlönProfanity.svg: Tomia, original image en:User:Polylerus (Profanity.svg) and is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A whole chat bubble of profanity, my, my…

The Neptune pool at Hearst Castle

“Hearst Castle” in San Simeon, California, is by Jim G from Silicon Valley, CA, USA and under the CC BY 2.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons

Hearst’s castle is a vulgarity from top to bottom.

Part of Grammar:
Plural: obscenities
Plural: profanities
Plural: vulgarities
Behavior, appearance, or expression (such as films and books) that violate accepted standards of sexual morality


The character, state, or quality of being obscene

  • Indecency
  • Lewdness
  • Obscene behavior
  • Obscene language
  • Obscene images

Something obscene, as a picture or story

An obscene word or expression, especially when used as an invective

  • An extremely offensive word or expression
Irreverent or not respectful of sacred matters

Blasphemous or obscene language

  • A swear word
  • An oath
  • Irreligious or irreverent behavior

Quality or state of not having good taste, manners, politeness, etc.

Something (such as a word) that is offensive or rude

The book was banned for obscenity.

Some people believe that Robert Mapplethorpe’s work was an obscenity.

The men scowled and muttered obscenities.

In 1972, George Carlin was arrested for his monologue, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television“and charged with violating obscenity laws.

The Hayes Code of 1930 laid out the rules of what would be considered obscene in the movies.

There was an outburst of profanity.

God damn it!

My parents won’t tolerate profanity in the house.

Disturbing those burial sites is a profanity!

Different cultures have differing ideas on what constitutes profanity.

He’s known for his vulgarities.

The bible was edited of its vulgarities to make it more acceptable (What the Bleep Does the Bible Say About Profanity?).

“As always, the British especially shudder at the latest American vulgarity, and then they embrace it with enthusiasm two years later.”

Alistair Cooke

The nouveau riche are stereotyped for their vulgarity.

Adjective: obscene, unobscene
Adverb: obscenely
Noun: antiobscenity, antiobscenities, obsceneness, unobsceneness
Adjective: half-profane, nonprofane, profanatory, profane
Adverb: profanely
Noun: nonprofanity, nonprofanities, profanation, profaneness, profaner, semiprofanity, semiprofanities
Adjective: vulgar
Adverb: unvulgarly, vulgarly
Noun: nonvulgarity, nonvulgarities, unvulgar, unvulgarness, vulgarness
Verb: profaned, profaning
History of the Word:
First known use: 1580s

From the French obscénité from the Latin obscenitatem ( the nominative is obscenitas) meaning inauspiciousness, filthiness, which is from obscenus meaning offensive

In the 1610s, it meant a foul or loathsome act.

By 1690, it was meant as a sense of an obscene utterance or word.

Mid-16th century from the late Latin profanitas, which is from the Latin profanus meaning not sacred. First known use: 1579

Return to top

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves?