‘History Of Swear Words’ is Pretty Fucking Good

Host Nicolas Cage is the shit

The pitch for History of Swear Words sounds like a madcap delight: What if Nicolas Cage hosted a Drunk History-type show all about our relationship with bad words? The Netflix series mostly delivers on that premise. The jokes about the words grow stale after a few episodes, but learning the history of each word makes the show worth the fucking effort.

Each History of Swear Words episode (directed by Christopher D’Elia, not to be confused with problematic comedian Chris D’Elia) starts off with an introduction by Cage, who is the perfect host for this type of show. His sacred hosting persona blends nicely with each episode’s profane examination of one of six of the most frequently-used swear words in the English language: fuck, shit, bitch, dick, pussy, and damn. He yells out a deranged “Fuuuuuuuuuck” to start the first episode and shows off an extremely detailed dick drawing for the Dick episode. You get the picture.

From there, comedians like Sarah Silverman, Joel Kim Booster, Nikki Glaser, London Hughes, Jim Jeffries and Nick Offerman wax profane about the word in question while experts like lexicographer Kory Stamper and cognitive scientist Benjamin Bergen explain how and why that word got its meaning, and how that meaning has evolved throughout history.

The words are still evolving; it’s interesting that Netflix self-censored the episode titles for every word except bitch and damn.

Aside from Cage, he expert interviews are the most interesting things about the show. They weave etymology, sociology and mythbusting together to create a tapestry of profanity. For instance, it quickly dispels the urban legend that “fuck” began as an acronym meaning “fornication under consent of the king”.  “Total horseshit,” as Stamper says. The word actually once meant simply getting hit.

“Shit” was once used as an official term in medical journals. “Damn” is the only word on this list that was an actual curse, and the experts examine that word through a religious lens. They’re also quick to point out how Victorian-era prudishness gave most of these words their current taboos, and how African American Vernacular English flipped many of the negative connotations of certain words, like bitch and shit, and made them positive. Each episode is a potty-mouthed etymology lesson.

The jokes in the show about those words often fall flat. The comedians interviewed all either have Netflix specials or have appeared in Netflix original programming, and many of their segments just seem like advertisements for their specials. This whole series is only two hours long, but it gets tiresome to hear some of the same riffs repeated for different words. The exception is a running gag in the Shit episode where Isiah Whitlock Jr. talks about his usage of “Shiiiiieeeettt” in The Wire. (Alas, there’s no mention of this scene from The Wire that’s nothing but varying usages of the word “fuck.”)

Cage’s game delivery always brings this show back to what it truly is, though: a Netflix special just happy to get people to say swear words on camera. And hearing other people talk about why those words matter is both entertaining and fun.

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Jake Harris

Jake Harris is a Texas-based journalist whose writing about pop culture and entertainment has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Nashville Scene and more. You can find more of his writings at jakeharrisbog.com or through his pop culture newsletter, Jacob's Letter.

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