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.

What Is Figgy Pudding Anyway?

bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

"We Wish You a Merry Christmas" is an ode to figgy pudding disguised as a straightforward Christmas song. Three out of four verses in some versions are dedicated to the dish. So after listening to enough holiday music this December, you may start to wonder: What is figgy pudding anyway? And is it really so good that you'd actually beg for it on a stranger's doorstep through song?

According to NPR, figgy pudding, also called plum pudding, isn't pudding—at least not the kind of pudding many Americans think of when they hear the word—and it contains neither figs nor plums. In the UK, pudding is used as catch-all to describe any sweet dish served after a meal. Figgy pudding isn't creamy or custardy, but it is a sugary cake, which qualifies it as pudding overseas.

In its most basic form, figgy pudding is a steamed, often domed-shaped cake made with alcohol and dried fruit. The first version of figgy pudding surfaced in 14th-century Britain. Back then, it was a stew-like, savory dish containing beef and mutton as well as fruit and wine. In the 15th century, this mixture was stuffed into animal casings to make sausages that would last through the winter.

By the end of the 16th century, figgy pudding had transitioned to a fully sweet dish—right around the same time when carolers started singing "Now bring us some figgy pudding" to their wealthy neighbors around Christmas. Today, the dessert is commonly filled with currants, raisins, and soaked in rum or brandy.

So where did the first half of its name come from? In pre-Victorian England, the word plum was applied to any type of dried fruit, including raisins, so plum pudding caught on. Figs occasionally appeared in recipes throughout the dish's history, though they're not considered a traditional ingredient.

If you're thinking about cooking a throwback feast this Christmas, don't stop at figgy pudding. From oyster stew to mincemeat pie, here are some more classic British dishes that have ties to the holiday.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What Exactly is Christmas Tree Flocking?

iStock.com/Spiderstock
iStock.com/Spiderstock

Of the many curious holiday traditions (figgy pudding? wassailing?), one of the oddest has to be spraying down small trees with a mixture of adhesive and cellulose fibers to satisfy our longing for a white Christmas.

That’s what’s happening when you adorn a tree with artificial snow, otherwise known as flocking. And yet, when decorated and lit up, there’s something beautiful and warmly nostalgic about a well-flocked Christmas tree. Here’s how professionals manufacture this Christmas miracle.  

The History of Flocking

We’ve been trying to get that snowy look on Christmas trees for longer than you might think, dating back to the 1800s using substances like flour or cotton. A 1929 issue of Popular Mechanics recommended varnish, corn starch, and flakes of the silicate mineral mica. 

But tree flocking as we know it really caught on in the late 1950s and 1960s, along with aluminum trees and other glitzy (if not natural-looking) decor of the post-war boom. General Mills marketed Sno-Flok home kits, to be applied using a gun that attached to a vacuum cleaner.

Such home kits are not so popular these days, says Tom Leonard, owner of Peak Seasons, one of the country's largest manufacturers of Christmas tree lots supplies and tree flock. Flocking itself, however, has retained a level of appeal. “Sunbelt states use a lot of it because there’s no snow there,” Leonard tells Mental Floss. “It’s tremendously popular. The West Coast, the South, and the Southeast, the vast majority of it is sold in those zones.”

The Science of Flocking

So what exactly is flocking? At its core, flocking means attaching tiny fibers to a surface to create texture (the process is also used in fashion, home decor, and crafts). The Peak Seasons recipe includes paper pulp as fiber, corn starch as adhesive, and boron as a flame retardant—there’s a safety benefit to flocking.

And the company makes a lot of it. Leonard says they're the largest manufacturer of flock in the United States and Europe. “I don’t want to share [how much], but we sell lots of flock. I mean truckloads and truckloads.”

Based in sunny Riverside, California, Peak Seasons starts with paper and a grinder. “It’s like a big roll of toilet paper and it weighs a ton and you feed it into a machine and it comes out a powder,” Leonard says. The exception is certain bright colors—flock comes in white, black, pink, ice blue, royal blue, red, green, gold, and purple—which require cotton fibers instead of paper to hold the dye. The final product is almost like baby powder, shipped all over the country in large, cement-bag-sized bags.

From there you need to affix the stuff in a nice even coat, which is where flock machines like the Mighty Sno-Blower come in. They’re basically big tanks that hold varying amounts of flock depending on the model, plus a mechanism at the bottom to fluff up the powder. The machine then pumps the powder through a hose, and a gun at the end mixes it with a mist of water.

And that’s how flock is born.

The Art of Flocking

You don’t have to go with a professional flocker, or even use manufactured flock. There are all sorts of DIY recipes that include things like soap flakes or even desiccated coconut flakes. But if you do go pro, you want to be in the hands of someone like Paul Iantosca, who has been flocking trees in the Boston area for 20 years.

Flocking one tree in bright purple (white is still most popular), Iantosca first sprays it down with water. Then, in an area closed off with plastic sheeting, he fires up the blower and blasts the tree evenly with what looks like a purple fog. The stuff gets everywhere. He wears a mask to keep it out of his nose, but some high-volume flockers wear full protective coveralls. 

The tricky part to flocking is that you can’t tell if you got it right until it dries. When it goes on, it’s cold and wet like paste. But as it dries, the Christmas magic kicks in and it puffs up, turning into fluffy white (or, in this case, purple) fuzz firmly affixed to the needles.

There are, of course, pitfalls. Not enough water, and the flocking falls off and makes a huge mess. A flocked tree can’t get wet a second time. “It won’t dry again. It’s disgusting actually,” Iantosca says. Also, when you flock a tree, the color highlights its flaws. A janky tree turns into a weird, uneven shrub.

But if you get it right and string it up with lights, you’ve got a real stunner on your hands. Iantosca’s had flocked trees for his own home for the past 10 years and his kids won’t let him go back.

“When you plug that thing in, it absolutely glows inside," he says. "It’s unbelievable.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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