This question was inspired by the Malvolio's answer to this question.

  1. What is the actual difference? In English-Russian dictionary there's almost no difference if speaking about tricky phrases. And according to Malvolio's answer there's a big difference in meanings of these two words.
  2. How to chose when to use "obscene" and when to use "scatological"?
  • 2
    There's an old saying about parental discipline: "Children should be seen, but not heard." There's another version, though: "Women should be obscene, and not heard."
    – MT_Head
    May 28, 2011 at 23:18

2 Answers 2


"Scatological" is only ever used to refer to feces.
Although @Malvolio makes a distinction that "obscene" specifically refers to sexual content, that's not necessarily the case:

–adjective 1. offensive to morality or decency; indecent; depraved: obscene language. 2. causing uncontrolled sexual desire. 3. abominable; disgusting; repulsive.

We (Americans, anyway) often use "obscene" to simply mean "outrageous":

He made an obscene amount of money selling sub-prime mortgages.

Despite Freud's conflation of money and feces, I can't imagine ever saying "a scatological amount of money."

  • 1
    Although we do have the slang phrases "a shit-load" or "a butt-load" (of something) to signify an enormous amount: Would you like to make a shit-load of money?
    – MT_Head
    May 28, 2011 at 20:17
  • 2
    Or "a shit-ton". Strangely, not an official metric unit.
    – MT_Head
    May 28, 2011 at 20:35
  • 1
    Right, but obscene does somehow conjure up a sexual connotation for me; I'd say it is essentially about sex, but can be used metaphorically for anything else offending common decency. But even then the sexual aspect is still present in the background. Or is that just me? May 28, 2011 at 23:32
  • Shit-load is obscene either I suppose? :) May 29, 2011 at 18:31
  • 1
    @MT_Head That would be a shit-tonne
    – BoldBen
    Sep 20, 2016 at 7:47

Obscenity has a specific legal meaning in the US:

the average person, applying contemporary community standards finds that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable state law, and the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value

Obviously, people aren't constrained by the legal definition of words any more than by the dictionary definition, but personally, I try to hew close to the legal definition whenever it might seem I am offering an opinion on a legal matter.

So traffic might be "murder" and my boss's salary might be obscene, but a death in a traffic accident is "manslaughter" at worst and "shit happens" is merely vulgar.

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