Why do we use the words "vulgar", "offensive" and "derogatory"? What are the differences between them?

For example, on Wiktionary, if we look up "nigger".

now offensive, ethnic slur, vulgar, see usage notes) A dark-> skinned person, especially a person of, or primarily of, Negro descent; a black person.

So, why is "fuck" worse than "penis" for example? Is it the fact that it's vulgar and how do they become actual swear words? Sorry if this is perceived wrong. Please assume good faith.

Plus, the broadcasting authority Ofcom has been exploring 'latest attitudes' to offensive language? It is very confusing why the language in their statistics they've chosen is very selective.

  • 5
    Great question. But a side comment on Wiktionary - "now offensive"? Really?
    – Mitch
    Commented Aug 14, 2018 at 20:16
  • 1
    University researchers in philosophy, sociology and other fields have spent years trying to figure this out. I recall reading a multi-page thesis on why feces, turd, poop, doodie, deuce, shit and related words were perceived so differently, despite essentially meaning the same thing. (Good luck getting as much from ELU.SE)
    – cobaltduck
    Commented Aug 14, 2018 at 20:23
  • So, it's really a good question? It's hard really. Perhaps context is key with it then? For example, I believe the usage of "white nigga" isn't offensive since there are major claims radio broadcasters don't censor/filter it. Commented Aug 14, 2018 at 20:26
  • 3
    There's considerable difference between the three listed words you asked about in your first question, so maybe you should consider including the research you've done so far.
    – user71740
    Commented Aug 14, 2018 at 20:55
  • 1
    There seem to be two different questions here. The one asked in the title and the first paragraph is reasonably well focused and capable of an answer that fits the format of this site. The question posed in the following paragraphs, however, invites a broad discussion of different kinds of dysphemisms; addressing it properly would require a book-length treatise
    – jsw29
    Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 17:34

3 Answers 3


My answer focuses on the particular question, "What are the differences between them [the words vulgar, offensive, and derogatory]?"

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms (1984) puts the three words in three separate clusters of related terms, suggesting that the three are not especially similar in meaning. Following are the relevant discussions in MWDS:

coarse, vulgar, gross, obscene, ribald are comparable when applied to persons, their language, or behavior and mean offensive to a person of good taste or moral principles. ... Vulgar suggests something that is offensive to good taste or decency, frequently with the added implication of boorishness or ill breeding [examples omitted]


derogatory, depreciatory, depreciative, disparaging, slighting, pejorative mean designed or tending to belittle. Derogatory may be used of one's own actions or activity that tends to detract from his reputation or to lower him in the estimation of others [examples omitted] More often the term is applied to expressions or modes of expression (as choice of words or tone of voice) and then implies an intent to detract or belittle by suggesting something that is discreditable [examples omitted]


offensive, loathsome, repulsive, repugnant, revolting are comparable when they mean utterly distasteful or repellent. Something offensive subjects one to painful or highly disagreeable sensations. Sometimes the term implies injured feelings as a result of an affront or insult [examples omitted] and frequently it suggests the evocation of such aversion that endurance involves mental strain or moral distaste [example omitted] or it may imply a vileness (as of appearance or odor) that excites nausea or extreme disgust [example omitted]

S.I. Hayakawa, Choose the Right Word: A Modern Guide to Synonyms (1968) doesn't discuss derogatory, but it too parks vulgar and offensive in separate word groups:

obnoxious, hateful, odious, offensive The words in this list are applied to a person or thing which arouses dislike, distaste, hostility, or opposition. ... Offensive is the mildest word in this list. It has wide application and can be used to characterize anyone or anything that is unpleasant or disagreeable [examples omitted].


vulgar, coarse, crude, gross, obscene These words are comparable in that they are all used when one wishes to describe the character, speech, or actions of people who have in some way offended one's sensibilities or moral standards. Vulgar and obscene are similar in their suggestion of indelicacy or indecency. But vulgar points more to a lack of refinement or good taste while obscene suggests a preoccupation with the pornographic: [examples omitted].

It is quite striking that Hayakawa and Merriam-Webster agree on four of the five members of the vulgar group that each identifies, but on none of the closest relatives to offensive. This suggests that vulgar has a fairly narrow meaning related to a sort of ignorant crudeness, while offensive is an extremely broad concept that may apply to practically anything toward which one feels any resentment or repugnance. For its part, derogatory seems to refer to a particular type of unpleasant conduct—that which denigrates or belittles.

So while all three terms may apply to things that cause offense, the types of offense involved are relatively specific in the cases of vulgar and derogatory but very general in the case of offensive.

  • I still don't understand how anything can be profane or bad language. For example, what about 'batty boy' (homosexual term) compared to 'idiot'? Both derogatory, yet not vulgar or "offensive". Commented Aug 15, 2018 at 10:35
  • Context is key though. I think I've gotten the answer I've wanted. Thank you! <3 let's 'retard' the answers now, shall we? Anyway, I'm surprised how even university researchers in philosophy and sociology have been struggling, trying to figure this out. It's not perfect, the English language but it helps with expression and conveying a message IMHO. Commented Aug 15, 2018 at 10:49

My opinion is in some cases those three might mean exactly the same thing. However generally speaking I think there's enough difference between these to straightforwardly state some differences. First of all, if you look up "derogatory" in dictionaries you'll get something like the following:

1. Disparaging; belittling: a derogatory comment.
2. Tending to detract or diminish.
American English Ditionary

tending or intended to detract, disparage, or belittle; intentionally offensive
Collins English Dictionary

The meanings of "derogatory" imply "to belittle", "to disparage", or to "derogate" (to take away, detract, discredit. link) .

To do any of these things should be considered at least slightly different from "to offend". People are offended much more often without intent by the offender than they are offended without intent by the derogator. As to this last point, it's interesting that the Collins Dictionary definition mentioned specifically "intentionally offensive." Another difference I can see is that people can take offence to things that aren't directed at them, but to things that may just be a breach of civility or custom. Take for example:

"I found his behaviour toward his mother to be really offensive."
"I found his behaviour toward his mother to be really derogatory."

or even better:

"I found his table manners to be really offensive."
"I found his table manners to be really derogatory." (little sense as far as I can see)

This is clearly a shade of meaning to be recognised.

Take also the example sentences:

"Those comments he made on the radio about Chinese people are really derogatory."
"Those comments he made on the radio about Chinese people are really offensive."

I believe a listener or reader of these would take the "derogatory" sentence to mean it's offensive to Chinese people", whereas the "offensive" sentence may be taken to mean it's both offensive to Chinese people, but in addition to that, may be seen as offensive on a more general scale; that is, offensive to people at large because racial intolerance is offensive to everyone. Therefore "derogatory" may be badmouthing or depreciating a person or group, but "offensive" may be a breach against societal or human sensibilities.

Now to vulgar. The etymology doesn't matter too much, but it may help. It comes from the Latin:

vulgus, the common people
American Heritage Dictionary

That's why vulgar can mean related to the masses of people, or "common". Link I know that's not the way in which you intended the word, but it may be helpful to point out that it's highly likely that the word "vulgar" came to have the meaning of crude or offensive and:

b. Deficient in taste, consideration, or refinement
American Heritage Dictionary

because the masses of people were considered crude and boarish as opposed to the elite/nobility/aristocratic/educated/privileged/wealthy.

However, you obviously want to know about "vulgar" to mean to swear or say something off-colour, and how it differs from the other two words. As this answer is long enough, I'll just try to illustrate an obvious difference with an example.

A team of builders are working on a site, and every fifth word that comes out of their mouths is the 'F' word. This is, by definition, a case of rather vulgar behaviour, but there would be nothing offensive about it. That is of course, unless people found that tradesmen talking to each other in this way was offensive.

I'm tempted to think that a simple way of putting it is that something being offensive means that the derogation or vulgar offends somebody, though I'm not sure about this.

When I started off by saying that the three words may in some contexts have the same meaning or be indistinguishable is because someone may say:

"He spent the whole time at the party drinking and making vulgar remarks."

And you wouldn't know (from the sentence itself) whether he spent his whole time making rude jokes inappropriately (vulgar), making hateful comments against Mexicans (being derogatory), or was just talking in a way that the others found offensive (being offensive).

But, there are distinctions among the words in many/most cases, I hope I've shown some.

  • 1
    Thank you. So, "vulgar" and its derivatives all kind of mean the same, right? Apparently, Wiktionary added 'sockpuppet' to the derogatory category. Guess what. I could say that right in front of my family, friends and colleagues. I think this is the answer that's quite good. Thank you so much and very much. Commented Aug 15, 2018 at 7:22
  • 1
    @SteveWoods I wouldn't call them derivatives. It's very hard for me to explain. To discredit or denigrate (derogatory) someone is likely to be offensive, but so is not saying "thank you", and it's not derogatory, it's simply offensive for another reason. Vulgar can mean rude or inappropriate, which may also offend, hence making it offensive. So I think the main distinction is that "offensive" is something that offends, and being derogatory and vulgar are things that could offend.
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Aug 15, 2018 at 7:33

A term is derogatory if it disparages, devalues, belittles what it refers to. Such a term is also offensive to anybody who cares about what the term refers to, and thinks that it should not be disparaged. Some terms are, however, offensive for a different reason: not because the audience particularly cares for what they refer to, but because their use does not fit the decorum that the audience expects, and thus expresses a disrespect for the audience. The terms whose use does not fit the decorum that the audience expects may also be characterised as vulgar, but so characterising them has the added implication that their use may be accepted in some other social circles, and that class distinctions are at work in this audience being offended by their use.

(This answer is not intended to contradict the two previously posted answers, but rather to address the question in a more direct and compact way.)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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