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'History of Swear Words': Much fussing over cussing

The Netflix series ‘History of Swear Words’, hosted by Nicolas Cage, is a lighthearted dive into the evolution and impact of dirty words

Nicolas Cage hosts 'History of Swear Words'. Image courtesy Netflix
Nicolas Cage hosts 'History of Swear Words'. Image courtesy Netflix

How is it possible to make a series on cussing where no one mentions George Carlin? In his classic “Seven dirty words” routine, Carlin laid forth the terms you couldn’t say on TV: “shit”, “piss”, “fuck”, “cunt”, “cocksucker”, “motherfucker” and “tits”. You can say pretty much anything on TV now, so much so that there’s a new show dedicated to the choicest of cusses. Two of Carlin’s words, and four others, are placed under the microscope in History Of Swear Words, a new documentary series by Netflix.

Hosted by Nicolas Cage, the series dedicates an episode each to “fuck, “shit”, “bitch”, “dick”, “pussy” and “damn”, exploring the etymology and social and cultural trajectory of these cusses. Helping Cage out are, among others, comedians Nikki Glaser, Sarah Silverman and Jim Jeffries, actor Nick Offerman, an author, a lexicographer and a cognitive scientist. The result is a determinedly silly package, cultural commentary delivered by way of arcane trivia, stand-up patter, movie clips and Terry Gilliam-like animation.

The comics are clearly delighted to have the leeway to cuss as much as they’d like, but the historical and social nuggets are the more interesting part of the show. The “bitch” episode—which everyone treads gingerly in—is fascinating, tracing the term from its initial usage for a female dog to a woman with desires to just a disagreeable woman. Rapper Open Mike Eagle recalls the impact of the entirely serious usage of “damn” on an episode of All In The Family. Film critic Elvis Mitchell points out in the “shit” episode that parental advisory stickers on CDs are probably racist.

The reason many will be drawn to this show is the prospect of Cage going on a bender as host. The actor plays along, yelling, staring at the camera, reading aloud the discarded options for the “Frankly, my dear” line from Gone With The Wind (the “damn” episode, naturally), and at one point trying on a hilariously awful British accent. I have a lot of time for Cage weirdness but I couldn’t help feeling the show would have benefitted from a host who makes swearing sound like poetry—any British actor over 50 with a background in theatre, say, or John Malkovich.

The jokes can be hit and miss—actor Isiah Whitlock Jr, who gained a cult following for saying “sheeeet” on The Wire, is given a routine that’s all buildup, no punchline—but there’s a good-natured cheekiness to the proceedings. The show slots in nicely with other bite-sized Netflix originals like Explained and Song Exploder, though it must be said that History Of Swear Words is neither as incisive as your average Vox video nor as flat-out funny as Drunk History.

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