Vulgarity is the quality of being common, coarse, or unrefined. This judgement may refer to language, visual art, social classes, or social climbers. John Bayley claims it can never be self-referential because, to be aware of vulgarity is to display a degree of sophistication which thereby elevates the subject above the vulgar.
From the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, "vulgar" simply described the common language or vernacular of a country. From the mid-seventeenth century onward, it began to take on a pejorative aspect: "having a common and offensively mean character, coarsely commonplace; lacking in refinement or good taste; uncultured; ill bred". In the Victorian age, vulgarity broadly described many sorts of activity, such as wearing ostentatious clothing, and other similarly subtle aspects of behavior. In a George Eliot novel, one character could be vulgar for talking about money, a second because he criticizes the first for doing so, and a third for being fooled by the excessive refinement of the second.
In language, the effort to avoid vulgarity could leave characters at a loss for words. In George Meredith's Beauchamp's Career, an heiress does not wish to make the commonplace statement that she is "engaged", nor "betrothed", "affianced", or "plighted". Though such words are not vulgarity in the vulgar sense, they nonetheless could stigmatize the user as a member of a socially inferior class. Even favored euphemisms such as toilet eventually become stigmatized like the words they replace, and currently favored words serve as a sort of "cultural capital".