Profanity vs. vulgarity

A letter writer took the newspaper to task recently for publishing a comic strip that used a coarse term for a bodily function. The writer called it “profanity.” I have always made a distinction in my mind between profane language and vulgar slang. Profanity, the dictionaries say, primarily deals with being irreverent toward a deity — what Christians often learn as taking the Lord’s name in vain. Vulgar slang, on the other hand, has more to do with body functions that we usually don’t refer to in polite company.

The letter writer’s point, though, was that off-color words don’t belong in the newspaper. Many readers are offended by that sort of language, and copy editors are keenly aware of that. We keep in mind our readers’ sensibilities and question writers when they use vulgar or profane terms. We have a higher standard in the family newspaper than the folks on some cable TV shows have.

That doesn’t mean, however, that off-color words don’t ever appear in print. Sometimes, they have a purpose, and sometimes, we must quote people exactly as they speak.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.