I bought a second-hand book at Bellingen, northern NSW, many years ago.
The book was called the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. A friend in Bellingen insisted on borrowing the book and then looked for the rude words. The friend was most upset when the book contained very few words that
would make the vicar drop the crockery and told me I had been “had”.
It wasn’t supposed to be a book of rude words.
Despite the book, vulgar is one of those words that have come down in status in our language over the years.
Vulgar language was the language of the
ordinary people, not the language of what we now, sometimes questionably, regard as rude words.
The earliest use of the word vulgar that I could find was in 1430, and it was then
described as the common, or usual, language of a country.
Even an edition of the Bible, produced many years earlier, was called vulgar. This Bible was compiled in the fourth century,
when Latin was still a living language. Michael Quinion said that Bible contained nothing that people would not approve.
A bloke called Needham said a long time ago the vulgar edition came from the Hebrew original, “which is lost”.
Over the years the word has gone downhill, very slowly.
The word started, so far as I can tell, as the common language of a country.
It took on a vernacular tone after that.
Robert Cawdrey said in the First English Dictionary of 1604 that “vlgar” meant common. I don’t know why it was spelt this way. It might have been what newspaper
people call a “typo”.
I Chamberlain said in 1707 “there were more good and more bad books printed and published in the English tongue than in all the
vulgar languages in Europe”.
Some people were given vulgar nicknames.
Then the word was used by people pointing to errors and prejudices in the language. A writer called Macarthur said in Own Times of 1879 “one of the vulgarest fallacies of statecraft”. It could be a good word for politicians.
The word now means something like lacking in refinement, even offensive.
“They said that you
were, dare I speak the vulgar word – a Christian” said Frederic Farrar writing in Darkness and Dawn in 1891.
word has spawned many other words and expressions.
A vulgarian is also a well-to-do person of vulgar manners. You can decide who that person might be.
In 1933 DL Sayers described Charles Dickens as “that incomparable vulgarisateur” and I don’t think the word was meant to be complimentary.
Other words included vulgarish (somewhat vulgar), volgarist, vulgarism, vulgarity, vulgarise, vulgarly and vulgarness. There are many more.
I counted at least ten occasions
when vulgar or vulgarity was used in William Hazlitt’s essay On Familiar Style and he was suggesting that writers could rise above the vulgarity of the common people.
said “I hate to see a parcel of big words without anything in them,” but I will leave that for another day.
The Vulgate Bible is described as “the
old Italic version of the Bible, preceding that of Saint Jerome”.
Wescott and Horte, writing in 1881, said “the name Vulgate
has long denoted exclusively the Latin Bible as revised by Jerome”.
And what of the vulgar fraction?
were not rude fractions, but I suppose factions that got their name when such things were ordinary or customary.
And what did the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue say about vulgar?
It didn’t mention it.