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.

The ChopBox Smart Cutting Board Has a Food Scale, Timer, and Knife Sharper Built Right Into It

ChopBox
ChopBox

When it comes to furnishing your kitchen with all of the appliances necessary to cook night in and night out, you’ll probably find yourself running out of counter space in a hurry. The ChopBox, which is available on Indiegogo and dubs itself “The World’s First Smart Cutting Board,” looks to fix that by cramming a bunch of kitchen necessities right into one cutting board.

In addition to giving you a knife-resistant bamboo surface to slice and dice on, the ChopBox features a built-in digital scale that weighs up to 6.6 pounds of food, a nine-hour kitchen timer, and two knife sharpeners. It also sports a groove on its surface to catch any liquid runoff that may be produced by the food and has a second pull-out cutting board that doubles as a serving tray.

There’s a 254nm UVC light featured on the board, which the company says “is guaranteed to kill 99.99% of germs and bacteria" after a minute of exposure. If you’re more of a traditionalist when it comes to cleanliness, the ChopBox is completely waterproof (but not dishwasher-safe) so you can wash and scrub to your heart’s content without worry. 

According to the company, a single one-hour charge will give you 30 days of battery life, and can be recharged through a Micro USB port.

The ChopBox reached its $10,000 crowdfunding goal just 10 minutes after launching its campaign, but you can still contribute at different tiers. Once it’s officially released, the ChopBox will retail for $200, but you can get one for $100 if you pledge now. You can purchase the ChopBox on Indiegogo here.

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Why Are Common Graves Called Potter’s Fields?

Graves in potter's fields are sometimes marked with blank headstones or crosses.
Graves in potter's fields are sometimes marked with blank headstones or crosses.
vyasphoto/iStock via Getty Images

For centuries, regions around the world have maintained common graves called potter’s fields, where they bury unidentified victims and impoverished citizens who couldn’t afford their own cemetery plots. The term potter’s field has been around for just as long.

The earliest known reference to a potter’s field is from the Gospel of Matthew, which historians believe was written sometime during the 1st century. In it, a remorseful Judas gives the 30 silver coins he was paid for betraying Jesus back to the high priests, who use it to purchase a “potter’s field” where they can bury foreigners. It’s been speculated that the priests chose land from a potter either because it had already been stripped of clay and couldn’t be used for farming, or because its existing holes and ditches made it a particularly good place for graves. But Matthew doesn’t go into detail, and as the Grammarphobia Blog points out, there’s no evidence to prove that the original potter’s field was ever actually used for its clay resources—it could’ve just been a parcel of land owned by a potter.

Whatever the case, the term eventually caught on as English-language versions of the Bible made their way across the globe. In 1382, John Wycliffe translated it from Latin to Middle English, using the phrase “a feeld of a potter,” and William Tyndale’s 1526 Greek-to-English translation of the passage featured “a potters felde,” which was altered slightly to “potters field” in King James’s 1611 edition.

Around the same time, a new definition of potter was gaining popularity that had nothing to do with pottery—in the 16th century, people began using the word as a synonym for tramp or vagrant. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was first written in a 1525 Robin Hood tale, and William Wordsworth mentioned it in his 1798 poem “The Female Vagrant.” It’s likely that this sense of the word helped reinforce the idea that a potter’s field was intended for the graves of the unknown.

It’s also definitely not the only phrase we’ve borrowed from the Bible. From at your wit’s end to a fly in the ointment, here are 18 everyday expressions with holy origins.

[h/t Grammarphobia Blog]