A few weeks ago I stumbled across the word "scurrilous", meaning "given to the use of coarse or vulgar language". I shared this word with two other people, but they had taken it to mean "scandalous".

I decided to have a look for the word in some online dictionaries, and the definition I had used only appeared in the American English versions of each dictionary; the British definition was indeed similar to "scandalous".

So, is the word commonplace/understood in Australian/British English, or do the dictionaries speak the truth?

(If it helps, I speak Australian English.)

  • 2
    As an American, I take it to mean "clearly insulting." Not reasoned criticism, not sharp wit, but scurrilous... Baser insults. And not necessarily vulgar, just... Irrelevant.
    – stevesliva
    Aug 11 '15 at 7:15
  • 2
    I'd agree with @stevesliva: despite the fact that it's in American dictionaries, the "vulgar language" meaning is not known to most American speakers, and it certainly isn't the most common meaning in the U.S. Aug 11 '15 at 10:42
  • I've always understood the primary meaning to be "scandalous", though I've seen the word used in the "vulgar" sense and understood it.
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 10 '15 at 12:58
  • Synonym of opprobrious.
    – Drew
    Jan 8 '16 at 22:03

In basic terms you are correct, in British English it is used more when talking about scandals. However, the American use of the word to mean obscene language etc does evolve from the original British usage. The use of obscene language is just a form a scandal which, over time, has overtaken the original meaning in the US.

  • 2
    In basic terms, you are correct. But your history of the word is quite wrong. The first meaning seems to have been obscene language, and the meaning of "scandalous" (also very common in the U.S.) is a broadening. A quote from Shakespeare: "Forewarn him, that he use no scurrilous words in's tunes." (Please don't blame Americans for corrupting the English language when you are the ones at fault. :-) ) Aug 11 '15 at 10:31
  • 2
    As a US person, I never took it to mean "obscene". More like, "purposely and maliciously incorrect". Looking over Webster, that's the "abuse or slander" part of the definition I guess.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 11 '15 at 10:33
  • @PeterShor the generally accepted translation from Shakespeare to modern language would the Scandalous nature of the language, not the scurrilous words themselves. Aug 11 '15 at 10:50
  • @Harland: Generally accepted by whom? Do you actually have some reference saying that this is the correct translation. Aug 11 '15 at 11:00
  • 1
    Actually, looking more closely at the history and etymology of the word, my best guess is that the first meaning was dirty jokes/vulgar humor/comedy in bad taste. This probably would have included making fun of other people, and that aspect might have given rise to the scandalous meaning. Aug 11 '15 at 11:57

The word is definitely understood in the UK.

  • 1
    Hi Jonathan, thanks for your answer. Just to clarify: understood as "scandalous" or "vulgar" or both?
    – Dog Lover
    Aug 11 '15 at 9:23
  • 1
    For me I understand it as both - obviously dependent on context. Aug 11 '15 at 12:08

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.