Strictly speaking, "profane" simply means something that is not sacred.

Generally speaking though, "profane" and "profanity" are taken to mean vulgarity or offensive language or behaviour. At the very least, outside of a discussion on religion, one would assume that's the meaning.

When did this happen? Was it a simple subtle shift or was it brought about by something?

  • 2
    I actually distinguish between vulgarity and profanity. I have known many in my life who could be extremely vulgar, but, never profane. – J. Taylor Feb 27 '18 at 15:46
  • in the arc of history the acceptance of the use of profanity has and will wax and wane. – lbf Feb 27 '18 at 16:00
  • Since 'offensiveness' is a matter of opinion, then this question must also be. – Nigel J Feb 27 '18 at 16:47
  • I'm sensing some confusion about my question. It's not about whether any individual words are profane or not... it's about when the word 'profanity' shifted its meaning to be less about religious taboo words and more about socially taboo words. – Dancrumb Feb 28 '18 at 4:31
  • @Dancrumb - if you take the pain of reading the answer below, you’ll see that profane original meaning was secular, and only later its connotation of offensive in religious terms developed. – user 66974 Feb 28 '18 at 19:47

The original meaning is that of “secular”, which evolved the “offensive” connotation from the 16th century apparently the from “Old French profaner, prophaner (13c.), directly from Latin profanare "to desecrate, render unholy, violate," from profanus "unholy, not consecrated".


mid-15c., "un-ecclesiastical, secular," from Old French profane (12c.) and directly from Latin profanus "unholy, not consecrated," according to Barnhart from pro fano "not admitted into the temple (with the initiates)," literally "out in front of the temple,"....... Sense of "unholy, polluted" is recorded from c. 1500.


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