Obscenity vs. Profanity vs. Vulgarity: What's the Difference?

iStock/Sadeugra
iStock/Sadeugra

The Dilemma: You just stubbed your toe or opened your 401(k) statement and you want to let loose with some language that would make a sailor blush. Which category do those colorful words fall under?

People You Can Impress: Sailors, legal scholars, linguists.

The Quick Trick: Who's mad at you for saying what you said? Obscenity gets you in trouble with the law. Profanity gets you in trouble with religious folks and The Powers That Be. Vulgarity just gets you in trouble with your mother.

The Explanation: Obscenity (from the Latin obscenus, meaning "foul, repulsive, detestable") generally covers sexual or scatological references to the body or bodily functions (i.e. F*&k and s#$t). The term is also used in a legal context to describe expressions (whether words, images or actions) that offend the sexual morality of a given time and place and are not protected by the First Amendment.

In this legal context, though, we're still grappling with what counts as obscene and what does not.

Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously said that he couldn't define what kind of material was obscene, but he knew it when he saw it. We came a little further with the Miller Test, which comes from the 1973 ruling of the Supreme Court case of Miller v. California. If an expression meets these three criteria, then it's obscene:

1. The average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.

2. The work depicts/describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law.

3. The work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

If the expression fails to meet any one of those criteria, then you're off the hook. "Average person," "community standards," "patently offensive" and "serious value" are all fairly subjective terms, though. Even with the Miller Test, there's no national standard for what classifies as obscene, and distinctions between protected expression and unprotected obscene expression vary among federal court districts.

If you're being profane, you don't need to worry about the Supreme Court (it has no legal definition), but if you believe in an immortal soul, you might be in trouble. Profane (from the Latin profanes, meaning "outside the temple") originally referred to things not belonging to the church. Later it meant blasphemy, sacrilege or taking the Lord's name in vain (we just call that blasphemy now).

Today, profanity is an expression that is specifically offensive to members of a religious group. The definition also extends to expressions that are scatological, derogatory, racist, sexist, or sexual. What is and isn't profane largely depends on the context and the company you keep.

Finally, vulgarity (from the Latin vulgis, meaning "the common people,"), which used to refer to text written in a vernacular instead of Latin, has two definitions today, depending on who you ask. For some, vulgarity is generally coarse or crude language. For others, it is more specifically the act of substituting a coarse word in a context where a more refined expression would be expected.

Why Do We Eat Pumpkin Pie at Thanksgiving?

gjohnstonphoto/iStock via Getty Images
gjohnstonphoto/iStock via Getty Images

While it’s possible—even probable—that pumpkins were served at the 1621 harvest festival that’s now considered the predecessor to Thanksgiving, attendees definitely didn’t dine on pumpkin pie (there was no butter or wheat flour to make crust).

The earliest known recipes for pumpkin pie actually come from 17th-century Europe. Pumpkins, like potatoes and tomatoes, were first introduced to Europe in the Columbian Exchange, but Europeans were more comfortable cooking with pumpkins because they were similar to their native gourds.

By the 18th century, however, Europeans on the whole lost interest in pumpkin pie. According to HowStuffWorks, Europeans began to prefer apple, pear, and quince pies, which they perceived as more sophisticated. But at the same time pumpkin pie was losing favor in Europe, it was gaining true staple status in America.

In 1796, Amelia Simmons published American Cookery, the first cookbook written and published in the New World colonies. Simmons included two recipes for “pompkin pudding” cooked in pastry crust. Simmons’s recipes call for “stewed and strained” pumpkin, combined with a mixture of nutmeg, allspice, and ginger (yes, it seems our pumpkin spice obsession dates back to at least the 1500s).

But how did pumpkin pie become so irrevocably tied with the Thanksgiving holiday? That has everything to do with Sarah Josepha Hale, a New Hampshire-born writer and editor who is often called the “Godmother of Thanksgiving.” In her 1827 abolitionist novel Northwood, Hale described a Thanksgiving meal complete with “fried chicken floating in gravy,” broiled ham, wheat bread, cranberry sauce, and—of course—pumpkin pie. For more than 30 years, Hale advocated for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday, writing regular editorials and sending letters to five American presidents. Thanksgiving was a symbol for unity in an increasingly divided country, she argued [PDF].

Abraham Lincoln eventually declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 (to near-immediate outcry from Southerners, who viewed the holiday as an attempt to enforce Yankee values). Southern governors reluctantly complied with the presidential proclamation, but cooks in the South developed their own unique regional traditions. In the South, sweet potato pie quickly became more popular than New England’s pumpkin pie (mostly because sweet potatoes were easier to come by than pumpkins). Now, pumpkin pie reigns supreme as the most popular holiday pie across most of the United States, although the Northeast prefers apple and the South is split between apple and pecan, another Southern staple.

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What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?

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iStock

For carbohydrate lovers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal quite like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say stuffing, though. They say dressing. In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. Dressing seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while stuffing is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it filling, which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If stuffing stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to HuffPost, it may have been because Southerners considered the word stuffing impolite, and therefore never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

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