Formerly the word vulgarity was confined to the low, mean, and essentially plebeian; but in the present day the great mixture of classes and the elevation of wealth have brought vulgar men and women even into good society.
It is a term which is now applied, not only to coarseness and familiarity in speech and manners, but also to pretensions of certain kinds.
It may be shown by a prominent display of wealth. A story is related of a French corn-merchant who had realized an enormous fortune. He invited a stranger to a family party.
The manners of every one present were irreproachable, and the dinner excellent, but it was served on gold plate. Such a display was unnecessary, and therefore vulgar.
Display is not confined to the wealthy. The man who makes too much of his own excellencies, who will only talk on the topic he is strong in, who, gifted with a fine voice, sits at the piano the whole evening, who, having written a book, interlards his talk with such phrases as, “as I say in my novel,” or who, being a great man in any line, condescends, talks loudly, or asserts his privileges, is a vulgar man, be the king, rajah or shoemaker.
There is an Indian fable of a lump of crystal, which thought it would be mistaken for gold because it reflected the glitter of the neighbouring metal. It was never taken for gold, but it was supposed to cover it, and got shivered to atoms by the hammer of the miner.
This story might be quoted with advantage against those who base their claims to distinction on their acquaintance with noble or distinguished personages. To converse with a man of high rank may be an honour, but it does not entitle the recipient of the honour to consider himself superior to those whom he meets every day.
An offensive form of vulgarity is an assumption of refinement in language or habits. The best speakers will never use a big and uncommon word where a common one will do. They consider “buy” better than “purchase”, “wish” than “desire”.
The pretentious never speak of “rich” and “poor”, but of “those of large” and “those of small means”. These people are as objectionable as one of the Dukes of Queensberry, who exaggerated over- refinement to such an extent that he would wash in nothing but milk.
The true gentleman can do anything that is not coarse or wrong. Mr. Newrich cannot lift his own carpet-bag into his own cab; Mr. Upstart cannot carry a parcel; Miss Languish “never touched a needle”; Miss Listless thinks it low to rake the beds in the garden, or tie up the branches of a rose-tree.
These are not ladies and gentleman, but vulgar people. It rather astonishes such persons to find that a nobleman can carry his bag or a parcel and that a noble lady delights in gardening.