Today, while reading Dan Brown's latest novel Inferno, I came to know that vulgar is actually derived from the Latin word vulgaris, literally meaning "of/pertaining to common people".

I really don't understand how come that got translated to mean offensive to standards of decency in English? Did the common folks exhibited indecent behavior in the Medieval times?

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    It's normal for terms denoting lower classes (vulgar, common, mean) to acquire bad meanings, while terms denoting upper classes (noble, gentle, kind) acquire good meanings. Everybody wants to be in the upper classes, and everybody wants to suck up to them. Enough, anyway, to adopt their values. Mar 3, 2015 at 21:21
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    Most of the day-to-day activities of the common people were probably offensive to the standards of the noblemen.
    – Barmar
    Mar 3, 2015 at 21:23
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    Gentle and kind actually come from the same PIE root, as does generous; mean comes from medianus 'middle' (i.e, not Up) Mar 3, 2015 at 21:34
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    Reminds me of idiot, which simply meant commoner in Ancient Greek.
    – Anonym
    Mar 4, 2015 at 8:24
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    Same for villain, Wikipedia states 'villanus, meaning "farmhand"... bound to the soil of a villa' Jan 6, 2016 at 13:33

2 Answers 2


Vulgar has a lot of shades of meaning, some depending on the user and some on the hearer. Originally, your birth decided whether you were a lady/gentleman or you were "base, common and popular" as Falstaff says in Henry V. Clearly (as is obvious to the non-working class) the labouring people cannot be expected to have the same refined sensibilities as the nobility: they prefer beer to wine, fart jokes to witty wordplay, and four-letter insults to sarcastic innuendo. The former are undoubtedly vulgar, but not necessarily inferior on that account.

  • The former are undoubtedly vulgar, but not necessarily inferior on that account. And yet, when someone calls you vulgar today, it no doubt conjures up an image of obscene accusations and you feel offended. For a word that only means of common people (which in today's democratic society, almost everyone is!) Mar 3, 2015 at 21:43
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    @PrahladYeri I'd say that almost everyone has been one of the common people since the dawn of time. If the common were ever a minority - well, they wouldn't be so common, would they?
    – user867
    Mar 4, 2015 at 0:32
  • "Vulgar has a lot of shades of meaning". Like 50 shades or so? Mar 4, 2015 at 3:06

Specifically with regards to how 'vulgar' relates to language, a key commonality between the old meaning and the new is the notion of a standard.

Before the spread of the printed word, Latin was the lingua franca for the high-born and educated in Europe. As the scholarly, administrative, and clerical language across the continent, Latin was the standard language for communication deemed of any value or importance. Other languages, often regional and without much written form to speak of, were known as vulgar languages (lingua vulgaris), and these would be the languages of the common people. In fact, many of these languages would become the Romance languages of today, but as non-standard variants of the highest form of written Latin, were known at earlier points as Vulgar Latin.

You can see in this way how the meaning of vulgar language today might relate to this notion of language that isn't fit for high, proper forms of communication. Adding the class and moral dimensions that many people have already mentioned, you can understand how the meaning became more severe and derogatory over time.

A similar transition can be seen with the words 'profane' and 'profanity.' Profanum, their root, originally denoted the normal, natural and mundane aspects of the world to be contrasted with Sacrum, the sacred aspect related to world of religion. Today, though, 'profanity' means something much more negative.

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