According to the Obscene Publications Act 1959

"an article shall be deemed to be obscene if its effect or (where the article comprises two or
more distinct items) the effect of any one of its items is, if taken as a whole,
is such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having
regard to all relevant circumstancs, to read, see or hear the matter
contained or embodied in it."

Deprave and corrupt? Doesn't that sound like fun? There has been a strict legal meaning for this juicy phrase that goes back to the controversial 1961 court case about the publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover. The following definition of deprave and corrupt became the precedent by which everything else since has been measured:

"To deprave means to make morally bad, to pervert, to debase or corrupt
morally. To corrupt means to render morally unsound or rotten, to destroy
the moral purity
or chastity, to pervert or ruin a good quality, to debase, to

As time goes on, matter that was once unsuitable for reading aloud to your wife and servants is commonplace. Definitions and expectations shift. What would once have provoked a flurry of angry letters to The Times is awarded BAFTAs and good reviews and accolades as art, and standard every day entertainment. Even the old angle of the dangle measure has been ignored several times in recent years by the censors in the name of serious European art cinema.

In Greek drama, violent or unsavoury acts tended to happen off-stage, or 'off-scene', which is where the modern word 'obscene' comes from (more precisely, 'ob' is Latin for 'against', whilst 'skini' is Greek for 'scene', or 'stage'. 'Obskini' has become 'obscene' in the intervening centuries).

Technically it refers to any dramatic element which we do not see with our own eyes, and which we are merely informed about. In 'Star Wars: A New Hope', for example, the Imperial reconnaissance of Dantooine is 'obscene'.

Nowadays the word is generally used to refer to something with lascivious content, although it can often refer to something which the commentator believes should be kept hidden (as in the phrase 'Omni Consumer Products announced that CEO Dick Jones earned an obscene $12 million in bonuses alone during the last financial year, despite widespread industrial action, anarchy in the streets, and unconfirmed reports of metal policemen gunning down civilians at random during humid weather').

Ob*scene" (?), a/ [L. obscenus, obscaenus, obscoenus, ill looking, filthy, obscene: cf. F. obsc'ene.]


Offensive to chastity or modesty; expressing of presenting to the mind or view something which delicacy, purity, and decency forbid to be exposed; impure; as, obscene language; obscene pictures.

Words that were once chaste, by frequent use grew obscene and uncleanly. I. Watts.


Foul; fifthy; disgusting.

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A girdle foul with grease bds his obscene attire. Dryden.


Inauspicious; ill-omened.

[R.] [A Latinism]

At the cheerful light, The groaning ghosts and birds obscene take flight. Dryden.

Syn. -- Impure; immodest; indecent; unchaste; lewd.

-- Ob*scene"ly, adv. -- Ob*scene"ness, n.


© Webster 1913.

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