When I look up the word "fuck" in the dictionary, I see that it is listed as a vulgar term. However, if I use it in church, I might be scolded for speaking profanity in the Lord's house. If I use it at work, I might be reminded that professionals shouldn't use obscenities.

But which is it really, vulgar, obscene, or profane? How do we tell the difference when classifying other words in this fashion?

  • 2
    It seems obvious to me that it is all three, but other people may have their own standards, or apply them differently depending on context. Are you asking about the relationships among the 3 categories? And whether or not it is slang? A word or phrase need not be slang to be considered vulgar, obscene, or profane, right?
    – JeffSahol
    Commented May 26, 2011 at 19:55
  • @JeffSahol You're right; I shouldn't have included that bit. It detracts from what I'm getting at.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented May 26, 2011 at 20:01
  • can you give more so that we can have a better idea of "what you're getting at"?
    – Mitch
    Commented May 27, 2011 at 0:28
  • @Mitch Maybe: Define the difference between vulgar, obscene, and profane?
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented May 27, 2011 at 0:35

5 Answers 5


Profane refers specifically to obscenities that are showing disrespect to God (or gods). Vulgar is used to describe obscenities that are not profane. However, if you are using obscenities in what should be a sacred setting, you are showing disrespect, and that is profane (even if the word used is simply vulgar).

In other words, all are obscenities, broken down into two groups: profanities and vulgarities.

  • I'm following your taxonomy, but can you clarify what an obscenity is then? That is, what is common about vulgarity and profanity that makes them obscenities? Are there other kinds of obscenities, or do we only make a distinction between religion-insulting and not?
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented May 27, 2011 at 13:26
  • I don't know if there are other groups -- vulgar is lewd while profane is blasphemous, but perhaps there are other groups of obscentities too. Commented May 31, 2011 at 22:14

Vulgar: the basic meaning is low class, not refined.

Profane: the basic meaning is insulting to God or religion, to desecrate

Obscene: the basic meaning is dirty, offensive to modesty, or decency.

Using that word would certainly be vulgar, it is not the sort of word you would use when you visited the queen. It would most likely be obscene in many settings, since decency and modesty require abstaining from referring to sex, especially in a harsh way. Of course in some settings this might be considered complete appropriate, in which case it would not be obscene.

The word is not profane intrinsically since it is not religious in nature (such as "God damn", or "Jesus H. Christ" might be.) However, in a church setting when appropriate modesty and decency might be expected, the occupants of the church might find the language insulting to the sanctified nature of the place, and consequently profane.

FWIW, profanity and swearing in general usually falls into one of three categories in English: sexual references, references to bodily functions, and blasphemous language. Beside this there is a lot of swearing that is basically a minced form of this, such as corblimey, gosh darnit, or my favorite new one: "shut the front door."

  • nice precise summary of all relevant points Commented May 27, 2011 at 3:11
  • I see what you are getting at. Are there words that are obscene, but not vulgar? Or profane but not vulgar?
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented May 27, 2011 at 13:22
  • @Kitḫ: For individual words, it's hard to make that distinction because context is everything, but there are plenty of obscene / profane texts that avoid vulgar language! The Story of O ... the works of Aleister Crowley ...
    – Pitarou
    Commented Jan 20, 2012 at 0:02
  • This is a really good explanation of something I find people confusing a lot; I'll be linking them here. However, I think that your definition of profane is not quite right. Profane is the opposite of sacred. Some things are by nature common and profane, and there is no harm in that. It is only profaning (desecrating) something which ought to be sacred that is objectionable. And profanity refers only to that combination -- disrespecting something sacred.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 19:52

I don't think it has to be any particular one of those three. They're all correct. As your example shows, in different contexts it's OK to call a word different things. 'Vulgar' is the word they use in a dictionary for that register; 'profane' is a churchy description of the word; and 'obscene' sounds right for public.

How do you tell for other words? Our dictionaries aren't so detailed that they give every nuance, so it takes living with the examples day in and day out (and it helps a lot to grow up with the language, if you have that choice).

  • So your saying vulgar is a dictionary classification, profane is a churchy classification, and obscene is a public classification?
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented May 27, 2011 at 13:24
  • Yes. Check the dictionary definitions of those three words and you'll get confirmation. As to the profanity itself, I'm saying that a dictionary will just say vulgar, whether it is obscene or profane or not. You can have words that are profane but not obscene or vulgar (I'd think any kind of blasphemy is profane; note that this means that profane things are not necessarily profanity). Something that is obscene is almost necessarily vulgar, but not the other way. The word 'poop' might be considered a bit vulgar but is not so extreme as to be obscene.
    – Mitch
    Commented May 27, 2011 at 13:33
  • ...to amend...profanity itself is not particularly describable by obscene. The over use of profanity in a speech might be considered obscene though (words themselves don't seem to be obscene).
    – Mitch
    Commented May 27, 2011 at 13:37

I'd argue that it's none of these things. It is a generic, yet taboo, intensifier that has no intrinsic meaning.

Only one definition of "fuck" has a fundamentally sexual component. Even in that case, it could be replaced with any other nonsense word and retain its meaning, if not its offense.

But in other cases, (What the fuck? Fuck yeah! You stupid fuck. That's fucked up. Fucking brilliant!) the word serves only to intensify the sentence.

Unfortunately, the word has become so offensive in American culture, that its use can result in criminal charges including contempt of court, assault of an officer and incitement to violence. Now that is fucked up.


Whether something is offensive, appropriate, or obscene depends on the context of the word being used.
This is called the Principle of Approriateness.
On a formal occasion, some words that may usually have been humorous or okay become offensive. As in a religious event, or at your office, as you stated yourself.

What we do know about the word f--k, is that it is not polite. In the best of circumstances, it is vulgar. And it goes to be as bad as profanity.

"profanity" is something which does not show respect to something which is religious, that is why your usage of f--k in a church is profane. In an office, it is regarded as a swear word, and therefore regarded to as a "obscenity". If someone at school said that, it would be called "swearing".

It all depends when it is used, and how it is used, that gives its different names.

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