An essay that begins to explore the patterns of vulgarity, and insult.
What is considered to be vulgar is drawn from a fairly narrow slice of our language, the main groups of which are listed below.
Reproductive organs/Gender/Sexual activity
I think it possible that every slang term for the male or female generative organs is used as a vulgarity.
Often combinations of words pertaining to different groups are used together, for example 'stupid cow' is an insult that combines low intelligence (disability) with a domesticated animal. Any term that denotes low intelligence is likely to find use as an insult. When a domestic animal is used as part of a vulgarity, its gender is more often female than male, with bitch, sow or cow far more likely to be used than dog, boar or bull.
Disease and disability I have grouped together, and likely any disease used will have a sexual reference. 'Pox-ridden' being a now somewhat archaic example, referring to those suffering with syphilis. The word spastic has been used as an insult, and in 1994, 'The Spastics Society' changed its name to 'Scope'. The Scope web page acknowledges that their name was holding them back, because spastic was being employed as a term of abuse.
Where sexual activity is referenced, slang terms are often used, although 'Go forth and fornicate at a distance' has been used as a hi-brow take on its more commonly used ancestor. Sexual activity as a group includes prostitution and as seems common the female practitioner is more likely to be used than the male. This is also the case with promiscuity, 'slag' is used often, the male equivalent 'rake' hardly at all and seems tame by comparison.
Slang is also preferred when excretory body functions are employed, often with an instruction to go away. The scatological vulgarities are often associated with territorial behaviour, this is not unconnected with the fact that many mammals mark their territory with excretions. Interestingly, one common term falling in this category is believed to derive from the Proto-Indo-European word skheid, meaning to cut, or separate, (interesting because territory is a separation of 'mine' from 'yours').
Perhaps the most common taboo activity that occurs as a vulgarity is that of the Oedipal accident.
The use of religious terms/names of god as vulgarities is blasphemy. As with most vulgarities, the religious words may often be combined with those from other groups, 'bloody hell' or 'by the very bowels of hell' being now archaic examples.
The ubiquitous 'F' word is so prevalent in some individual's language that it can scarcely be considered a vulgarity at all, being in essence a verbal tic akin to 'erm', 'like' or 'you know'.
It is popular to refer to the target of personal vulgarity as being a practitioner of some specific sexual activity, especially masturbation or cunnilingus and again slang terms are commonly employed. Why such widely enjoyed practices should be seen as insulting is part of a wider question, why are any of these terms offensive? Asking this does not dispute that they are offensive.
Relational vulgarity is of the 'son of a bitch' or 'whore son' variety, though it also includes the aforementioned Oedipal accident. Relational can also be of the type where the target's parents are used with the implication of a hereditary slur, 'your mother...' (again the female emphasis). Though common nowadays in some societies, illegitimacy also falls into the relational group.
Vulgarity can often be used as an insult, but this is not always the case. What is considered vulgar differs according to time and place. Words that are considered vulgar can be used in a friendly or even affectionate manner. Tone of voice and body language are important in discerning if offense is intended.
Other common uses of the vulgar include complaining about one's situation, and sharing the language of a group as a means of demonstrating membership. It can also be used to express surprise and or pain, (who says 'oww' when they hit their thumb with a hammer?). It can also be used to indicate informality.
The Taboo group is really a catch all, since the vast majority of vulgar terms are related to subjects considered taboo at one time or another.
The common use of vulgarities seems to be a feature of a society where respect for any sort of authority is lacking. As such widespread use of vulgarity can be considered an indicator of a society in decline. In such a society swearing looses much of its ability to shock.
The use of 'swear' to indicate a vulgar word is interesting as another common use is to affirm that something is true, (I swear to speak the truth, the whole truth etc.), or to promise some course of action, (I swear loyalty to the Queen). The word developed from a Middle English word swerian meaning to take an oath. Its association with bad language began around the early 15th Century and derived from the notion of a person swearing to God that they would pursue some course of action but failing to do so.
There are non verbal vulgarities, and as with verbal vulgarity this is sometimes regional in its relevance. The average USA citizen will view the 'finger' as insulting, but happily wave about the two fingered equivalent that offends the British. It seems likely that most vulgar gestures refer to sexual acts, for example the clasped elbow bend.
Vulgarity gets an early start as children of school age learn 'dirty' words, often childish slang falling into the usual categories, such as “You're a poo-poo head.” Children may also employ words that they know are vulgar, but do not know the full or even partial meaning of. A young child calling someone a 'bugger' or a 'sod' will, (thankfully), usually have no inkling of the physical activity to which these words refer.
An individuals choice of vulgarity might be quite revealing. A scatological emphasis might indicate a territorial individual, or someone who needs space.