The term vulgarism, as used to single out a definite group of words of non-standard English, is rather misleading. The ambiguity of the term apparently proceeds from the etymology of the word. Vulgar, as explained by the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, means a) words or names employed in ordinary speech; b) common, familiar; c) commonly current or prevalent, generally or widely disseminated.
Out of seven various meanings given in Webster's Third New International Dictionary six repeat nearly the same definitions that are given in the Shorter Oxford, and only the seventh is radically different. Here it is:
"5a: marked by coarseness of speech or expression; crude or offensive in language, b: lewd, obscene or profane in expression...: indecent, indelicate."
These two submeanings are the foundation of what we here name vulgarisms. So vulgarisms are:
1) expletives and swear words which are of an abusive character, like 'damn', 'bloody', 'to hell', 'goddam' and, as some dictionaries state, used now as general exclamations;
2) obscene words. These are known as four-letter words the use of which is banned in any form of intercourse as being indecent. Historians tell us that in Middle Ages and down into the 16th century they were accepted in oral speech and after Caxton even admitted to the printed page. All of these words are of Anglo-Saxon origin.
Vulgarisms are often used in conversation out of habit, without any thought of what they mean, or in imitation of those who use them in order not to seem old-fashioned or prudish. Unfortunately in modern fiction these words have gained legitimacy. The most vulgar of them are now to be found even in good novels. This lifting of the taboo has given rise to the almost unrestrained employment of words which soil the literary language. However, they will never acquire the status of standard English vocabulary and will always remain on the outskirts.
1Wyld, H. Ñ. Op. cit., p. 16.
The function of expletives is almost the same as that of interjections, that is to express strong emotions, mainly annoyance, anger, vexation and the like. They are not to be found in any functional style of language except emotive prose, and here only in the direct speech of the characters.
The language of the underworld is rich in coarse words and expressions. But not every expression which may be considered coarse should be regarded as a vulgarism. Coarseness of expression may result from improper grammar, non-standard pronunciation, from the misuse of certain literary words and expressions, from a deliberate distortion of words. These are improprieties of speech but not vulgarisms. Needless to say the label coarse is very frequently used merely to designate an expression which lacks refinement. But vulgarisms, besides being coarse properly, are also rude and emotionally strongly charged and, like any manifestation of excess of feelings, are not very discernible as to their logical meaning.
f) Colloquial coinages (words and meanings)
Colloquial coinages (nonce-words), unlike those of a literary-bookish character, are spontaneous and elusive. This proceeds from the very nature of the colloquial words as such. Not all of the colloquial nonce-words are fixed in dictionaries or even in writing and therefore most of them disappear from the language leaving no trace in it whatsoever.
Unlike literary-bookish coinages, nonce-words of a colloquial nature are not usually built by means of affixes but are based on certain semantic changes in words that are almost imperceptible to the linguistic observer until the word finds its way into print.
It is only a careful stylistic analysis of the utterance as a whole that will reveal a new shade of meaning inserted into the semantic structure of a given word or word-combination.
Writers often show that they are conscious of the specific character of the nonce-word they use by various means. The following are illustrations of the deliberate use of a new word that either was already established in the language or was in process of being established as such:
"...besides, there is a tact
(That modern phrase appears to me sad stuff.
But it will serve to keep my verse compact).
(Byron, "Don Juan")
According to the Oxford Dictionary the meaning of the word tact as used in these lines appeared in the English language in 1804. Byron, who keenly felt any innovation introduced into the literary language of his time, accepts it unwillingly.
A similar case in which a writer makes use of a newly invented colloquial expression, evidently strongly appreciating its meaning, may be noticed in "In Chancery", where Galsworthy uses to be the limit in the sense of ‘to be unbearable’ and comments on it.
"Watching for a moment of weakness she wrenched it free; then placing the dining-table between them, said between her teeth: You are the limit, Monty." (Undoubtedly the inception of this phrase—so is English formed under the stress of circumstance.)
New expressions accepted by men-of-letters and commented on in one way or another are not literary coinages but colloquial ones. New literary coinages will always bear the brand of individual creation and will therefore have more or less precise semantic boundaries. The meaning of literary coinages can easily be grasped by the reader because of the use of the productive means of word-building, and also from the context, of course.
This is not the case with colloquial nonce-words. The meaning of these new creations creeps into well-known words imperceptibly. One hardly notices the process leading to the appearance of a new meaning. Therefore colloquial nonce-formations are actually not new words but new meanings of existing words. True, there are some words that are built with the help of affixes, but. these are few and they are generally built with the most common suffixes or prefixes of the English language which have no shade of bookishness, as -er, -al, un- and the like.
New coinage in colloquial English awakens as emphatic a protest on the part of literary-conscious people as do nonce-words in literary English. Here is an interesting quotation from an article in The New York Times Magazine:
"Presently used to mean 'at the present moment' but became so completely coloured with idea of 'in the near future' that when its older meaning came back into general use after World War II, through re-introduction into civilian speech of the conservative military meaning, many people were outraged and insisted that the old meaning was being corrupted-whereas, in fact, the 'corruption' was being purged. Human nature being what it is, and promptness ever behind promise, the chances are strong that the renewed meaning will fade.
"Peculiar originally meant 'belonging exclusively to'. We still keep the older meaning in such statement as 'a custom peculiar to that country'. But by extension it came to mean 'uncommon' and thence 'odd' with the overtones of suspicion and mistrust that oddness moves us to." 1
Some changes in meaning are really striking. What are called semantic changes in words have long been under the observation of both lexicologists and lexicographers. Almost every textbook on the study of words abounds in examples of words that have undergone such considerable changes in meaning that their primary meanings are almost lost. See the changes in the words nice, knave, marshal, fellow, for example.
In some cases it is difficult to draw a line of demarcation between nonce-words of bookish and of colloquial origin. Some words which
1New York Times Magazine, Nov. 10, 1963.
have undoubtedly sprung from the literary-bookish stratum have become popular in ordinary colloquial language and have acquired new meanings in their new environment.
Bergan Evans, co-author of "A Dictionary of Contemporary Usage" in an article published in The New York Times Book Review says that "Words are living things. They grow, take roots, adapt to environmental changes like any plant or animal."1This, of course, should be taken as a metaphor. But in observing the changes of meaning that words may undergo, the comparison is really apt. The author shows how the word sophisticated, undoubtedly a word of bookish origin, has developed new meanings. Let us follow his trend of investigation. The word sophisticated originally meant 'wise'. Then, through its association with the Sophists, it came to mean 'over-subtle', 'marked by specious but fallacious reasoning', 'able to make the worse appear the better reason'. Then it developed the additional, derivative sense of 'adulterated', i.e. 'spoiled by admixture of inferior material'. This meaning naturally gave birth to a new shade of meaning, viz. 'corrupted'. Then suddenly (as Evans has it) the attitude implicit in the word was reversed; it ceased to mean unpleasantly worldly-wise and came to mean admirably worldly-wise. for the past fifteen years sophistication has been definitely a term of praise. By 1958 in John O'Hara's "From the Terrace", sophistication had come to signify not 'corruption' but almost the 'irreducible minimum of good manners'.
Sudden alterations in meaning have frequently been observed in studies of semantic change. The unexpectedness of some of the changes is really striking and can be accounted for only by the shift of the sphere of usage from literary to colloquial. It is evidently the intonation pattern that brings forth the change. Perhaps the real cause of such changes is the ironic touch attached to the word sophistication and also to other words which have undergone such an unexpected shift in meaning.
It follows then that some nonce-words and meanings may, on the one hand, acquire legitimacy and thus become facts of the language, while, on the other hand, they may be classified as literary or colloquial according to which of the meanings is being dealt with.
The ways and means of semantic change are sometimes really mysterious. To use Evans's words, "some words go hog wild in meaning. The word sophisticated from its colloquial use denoting some passive quality started to mean 'delicately responsive to electronic stimuli', 'highly complex mechanically', 'requiring skilled control', 'extraordinarily sensitive in receiving, interpreting and transmitting signals'. Or at least that is what one must guess it means in such statements as "Modem rader is vastly more sophisticated than quaint, old-fashioned rader". (Time); later "the IL-18 is aeronautically more sophisticated than the giant TU-114." "Pioneer V is exceedingly sophisticated." (Chicago Sunday Times) and "The Antikythera mechanism is far more sophisticated than any described in classical scientific texts." (Scientific American)" 2
1 The New York Times Book Review, Sept. 17, 1961.
2Evans, Bergan. Op. cit.
Mr. Evans's article shows how unexpected changes in meaning may be, and how strangely literary and colloquial nonce-coinages may interweave.
There is another feature of colloquial nonce-words which must not be overlooked. There are some which enjoy hopeful prospects of staying in the vocabulary of the language. The nature of these creations is such that if they appear in speech they become noticeable and may develop into catch-words. Then they become fixed as new colloquial coinages and cease to be nonce-words. They have acquired a new significance and a new stylistic evaluation. They are then labelled as slang, colloquial, vulgar or something of this kind.
Literary nonce-words, on the other hand, may retain the label nonce for ever, as, for example, Byron's "weatherology."
Nonce-coinage appears in all spheres of life. Almost every calling has some favourite catch-words which may live but a short time. They may become permanent and generally accepted terms, or they may remain nonce-words, as, for example, hateships used by John O'Hara in "Ten North Frederic."
Particularly interesting are the contextual meanings of words. They may rightly be called nonce-meanings. They are frequently used in one context only, and no traces of the meaning are to be found in dictionaries. Thus, the word 'opening' in the general meaning of a way in the sentence "This was an opening and I followed it", is a contextual meaning which may or may not in the long run become one of the dictionary meanings.
Most of the words which we call here colloquial coinages are newly-minted words, expressions or meanings which are labelled slang in many modern dictionaries. But we refrain from using the term as freely as it is used in dictionaries firstly because of its ambiguity, and secondly because we reserve it for phenomena which in Russian are known as ïðîñòîðå÷üå, i. e. city vernacular bordering on non-literary speech.