Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Why are they called "Vulgarity Meters"?

A reader e-mailed me with the following question:

The vulgarity meter apparently is a measure of how obscene a word is considered. I wonder why you didn't name it "obscenity index" or obscenity-something-else. To me, "vulgar" means "common".

Excellent question. Read on for my (long-winded) reply.

Before I released the feature to the website, it was called "Offensiveness meters." (In fact, in the program code, that's what it's still called.) I didn't like the choice of the word "offensiveness" both because it's a long word (which doesn't look good in a design sense in some places on the website) and because it's connotation is too much "hurtful" and not enough "obscene."

I did some research and found that the word "obsceness" is relatively obscure - for example, my e-mail program flags it as a misspelled word. "Obscenity" is far more common, but (I felt) carried less of the connotation of being a measure of something. As in, you might say, "There was a lot of obscenity in that film," but (perhaps) less likely, "I felt that film's obscenity was 50%."

Obviously the finer points of connotation are arguable, but that was my thought process. So I looked for synonyms and settled on "vulgarity", which I felt was a) more common than "obsceneness" and b) captured better than "obscenity" the sense of being a measurement.

But the reader is right - I totally missed "vulgar" as "common".

What do you think? What would you name the feature?

-- Walter (waltergr@aol.com)

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