Arts

The History of Swear words promotional poster
The show is sadly not based on the classic George Carlin routine or the blink-182 song "Family Reunion." Image: History of Swear Words/Netflix.

Show details evolution and cultural impact of six “most explicit” words in English language

A show exploring the history of everyone’s favourite swear words sounds compelling, to say the least. Add in Academy Award-winning actor Nicolas Cage as the host, several comedians, and experts on linguistics, history, and pop culture, and it’s easy to see why The History of Swear Words immediately darted to the top of Netflix’s most-watched list following its debut in the beginning of January. 

The show is divided into six 20 minute episodes, with each episode dedicated to a specific expletive: Fuck, Shit, Bitch, Dick, Pussy, and Damn, respectively (ironically, Netflix opted to censor the spelling of every word, except “Damn”). The show claims to examine the origin of the word, evolution, and cultural impact of swear words and their various meanings, with interjections from several experts providing facts and entertainers chiming in to share their own opinions. 

The list of entertainers includes Baron Vaughn, DeRay Davis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Jim Jefferies, Joel Kim Booster, London Hughes, Nick Offerman, Nikki Glaser, Open Mike Eagle, Patti Harrison, Sarah Silverman, and Zainab Johnson. 

The show also features Benjamin K. Bergen, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California; Anne H. Charity Hudley,  a linguist and professor of African-American English at the University of California; Mireille Miller-Young, a professor of women’s studies at the University of California; Elvis Mitchell, a film critic; Melissa Mohr, author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing; and Kory Stamper, a lexicographer, former Merriam-Webster editor, and author of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.

Unfortunately, despite the star-studded cast, numerous experts, and colourful subject matter, the show fails to live up to its alluring premise. 

Each episode begins with an introduction from suit-clad Nicolas Cage, delivering funny anecdotes with as much gravitas as he can muster. These clips are admittedly entertaining; Cage uses the episode’s chosen curse word in just about every way imaginable, and even pokes fun at the copious number of swear words heard in his films. However, his role as the host of the show seems limited to intros, outros, and the occasional narration of an animated history lesson. Considering the limited amount of screen time allotted to the other entertainers, who add little (if anything) substantial to enjoyment of the show, it’s unfortunate that Cage’s talents weren’t used more. 

Speaking of the other entertainers — why were they included in the show at all? The vast majority of each episode is spent on their insights into the usage of swear words, which they have no authority on compared to the experts who have actually studied these words. 

Some additions make sense, like Nikki Glaser’s reference to a Patton Oswalt stand-up routine that pokes fun at contradictory censorship rules for the use of the word dick on television. She relates the use of the swear word to her experience as a comedian. However, most other comedians’ contributions are limited to repeatedly yelling swear words in the hopes that it will elicit a big laugh from viewers, when in reality these clips come off as lazy and tiresome. 

In fact, in the episode “Shit”, actor Isaiah Whitlock Jr. makes an appearance to discuss how his use of the word shit in The Wire and Da 5 Bloods helped him stand out and become a household name, which he does for less than three minutes before endeavouring to say the word shit for as long as he can. For the rest of the episode, segments about the history of the word are interrupted for check-ins with Whitlock Jr., which are not funny and are even irritating. 

If there is, however, one exception to the over-presence of tangential celebrities in this series, it’s rapper Open Mike Eagle and film critic Elvis Mitchell. Both make several connections throughout the series to the impact that Black culture has had on curse words, and the usage of these words within Black culture. 

Unlike the other entertainers, their comments are well articulated, extremely insightful, and even make viewers wish for a spin-off of just those two. Eagle’s knowledge of rap and Mitchell’s of film and music allows them to make astute references, such as in the episode “Fuck,” where they explain that the word is often used in the Black community as a way for people to draw attention to race issues. 

Open Mike Eagle further clarifies that when popular hip hop group, N.W.A, famously released the song “Fuck Tha Police” in 1988, their use of the word fuck wasn’t meant to express aggression or malice, but their deep disappointment with the treatment of Black people in America especially by the justice system and the police. 

Similar connections are made to the discrimination of women and the suffragette movement in the episodes “Bitch” and “Pussy”, but again, with most comments coming from the comedians, these discussions lack substance. 

Arguably the biggest problem with the show is its lack of depth. Based on the title alone, most people (including myself) would expect the show to delve deep into the origins, meanings, and usages of swear words over time. The experts are given brief opportunities to cover these areas, and are often cut off in favour of a joke, leaving viewers wishing for more. For example, in the episode “Bitch,” Kory Stamper recounts her experience as a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster Dictionary, telling us her job required her to input meanings of new words and revise the definitions of others. 

She encountered one such revision when she realized the word “bitch” did not include a label identifying it as an offensive word in the same way the other swear words in the series did. She mentions going “down a rabbit hole” of research about the word, but is quickly cut off by a montage of female figures notorious for being disliked. 

Finally, the show is very U.S.-centric, and lacks details about swear words in other countries. Apart from a brief segment in the final episode, “Damn”, and a comment from British comedian London Hughes about how swear words are received by Brits, the series limits the history of swear words to the United States. The discussions about censorship and usage of swear words in the media are also all regarding American media. 

If you’re looking for a short and casual watch with a few entertaining moments, The History of Swear Words will do just fine. However, if you’re actually interested in learning more about the psychology behind swearing, linguistic principles that make certain words useful as curses, or about various definitions of swear words over time, it might be worth it to consult one of the books written by the experts mentioned above.
Melissa Mohr’s Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing or Kory Stamper’s Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries might be more interesting.