The elevator pitch for Netflix’s History of Swear Words is an immediately appealing one: Nicolas Cage, cinema’s patron saint of lunacy, walks viewers through the history behind a specific curse word, and curses copiously in the process. In other words, it’s Nicolas Cage swearing ASMR. That log line alone would be enough to get viewers (or at least me) to tune in, but Cage is ultimately just the bait for the series, which, over the course of six 20-minute episodes, goes surprisingly deep into not only each epithet’s origins but the effects of racism and misogyny on what is or isn’t considered taboo, and what can or can’t be reclaimed. If anything, the only pity is that the series isn’t longer; the discussions are fascinating and unusually upfront, and beg a more detailed history than the brief overview can provide.
The words being discussed are, in order, fuck, shit, bitch, dick, pussy, and damn, and the people discussing them range from comedians like Joel Kim Booster, Patti Harrison, and Nikki Glaser to experts on the subject of cursing, such as lexicographer Kory Stamper and Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing author Melissa Mohr (asterisk in the original). The variety of talking heads helps to keep the series from feeling too much like educational videos—even though that’s what these ultimately are—and they also provide a necessary breadth of perspectives, with Kim Booster recalling his personal experience with bitch as a homophobic slur and film critic Elvis Mitchell outlining the racism at work behind the advent of the Parental Advisory sticker. The colorful graphics—timelines, reenactments, etc.—are presumably there for a similar reason, to keep the explanations of each curse’s etymology from becoming too pedantic, but the story of, say, dick’s journey from diminutive nickname to genital slang, with an intermediate stop where it was used to refer to riding crops, is fascinating enough to hold its own without the visual help.
The wide-ranging series tackles the role of African American Vernacular English in shaping the English language; the importance of the riot grrrl movement in reclaiming a fundamentally misogynistic word; and the history of the Hays Code, the Parents Music Resource Center, and pornography. It’s in these explorations that History of Curse Words excels—in the “D**k” episode, feminist studies professor Mireille Miller-Young explains the cultural importance of Saturday Night Live’s “Dick in a Box”—and where it becomes clear that the comedians involved are mostly set dressing—not that that’s a bad thing. It’s also just fun to hear people swear.
There’s a huge amount of pleasure to be had in simply being able to curse at length without being bleeped, as shown by Cage beginning the first episode, “F*ck,” by screaming the word at the top of his lungs, as well as bringing Isiah Whitlock Jr. on for (obviously) the episode on “Sh*t.” That delight is the same reason why swearing supercuts exist (search for “swearing supercut” on YouTube and you’ll find videos like “All the Bad Words in The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Pulp Fiction Supercut—Just the Cussing”), and that momentum takes History of Swear Words a long way. And for those with less patience for Nic’s Cage-iness, there’s no need to worry—the series deploys him relatively sparingly, letting the cuss experts take precedence.
There’s obviously more to the history of each curse word than can fit into 20 minutes, and almost all of the episodes feel like they end just as they’re beginning to dig into what makes each word interesting. “Pu**y,” for instance, spends some time addressing the word in the context of the current political administration and the rise of the “pussy hat,” but Harrison is the only speaker who voices any criticism of the movement and mainstream feminism. The episode immediately moves on, leaving an obvious void behind. There’s a well that’s been left untapped as to how reclaiming the word “pussy” is more complicated than the episode might suggest, and each episode has similar blank spaces when it comes to filling in these swear words’ histories beyond their most straightforward origins.
For all its brevity, History of Swear Words does a more than serviceable job probing the origins of expletives we too often take for granted, and if it pushes you to fill up your browser history with curse words after it’s done, the research is bound to be a joy of its own. Yes, Nicolas Cage swears up a blue storm, but he’s just the spoonful of sugar helping the foul-mouthed medicine go down.