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‘History of Swear Words’ is pretty f---ing good

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Full disclosure: I f---ing LOVE swearing. I have a notorious potty mouth, using curse words as every conceivable part of speech in my coarse discourse. I swear in front of friends and strangers. I swear in front of kids. Hell, I even swear in front of my mom.

But while I love swear words, I’ll freely admit to not necessarily knowing that much about them. Their origins, their etymology … their history.

Happily, Nicolas Cage has got my back.

Cage is the host of the new Netflix series “History of Swearing,” currently streaming on the service. Over the course of six 20-minute episodes, Cage – along with a cavalcade of celebrities, historians and academics – walks us through the history of various swear words. Each of the six episodes is devoted wholly to one specific swear word.

(For the record, the six in question are: f—k, s—t, b—ch, d—k, p—y and damn.)

In every episode, a besuited and overly-coiffed Cage speaks to us from a sort of den. He sits before a roaring fireplace; a globe-shaped bar beside him. He gives us a suitably Cage-ian introduction, muttering or growling or screaming or some combination therein, all leading up to his own unique expression of the episode’s thematic term. It is weird and quirky and off-kilter.

Obviously, I’m here for it.

Cage is just the framing device, however – the meat of the thing comes from his vast and varied guest list. The famous faces are clearly having fun with the conceit, really embracing their affection for these epithets. Notorious foulmouths like Sarah Silverman and Jim Jeffries are here, bringing precisely the sort of energy that you’d expect from them on a show like this. Nick Offerman is a highlight, obviously, because Nick Offerman is always a highlight.

We also get some folks who have gained notoriety because of their deft usage and/or expression of one curse word in particular. While I was likely not the only person disappointed that they couldn’t get Samuel L. Jackson for the “F—k” episode – which is first, because why not lead with your ace? – the inclusion of Isaiah Whitlock Jr. in the “S—t” episode offered some consolation (if you don’t know why Whitlock is here, you haven’t seen “The Wire” or “Da 5 Bloods”).

But for the word nerds out there, the real highlight is the frankly impressive collection of experts they have gathered to dig into these words. Where did they come from? How did they evolve? Were they always bad? If so, why? If not, when did they become taboo? So many questions, all answered by some very smart people.

You’ve got Kory Stamper, lexicographer and former editor for Merriam-Webster, author of “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.” There are a couple of folks from UC-Santa Barbara – women’s studies professor Mireille Miller-Young and linguist Anne H. Charity Hudley. Cognitive scientist and professor Benjamin K. Bergen of UC-San Diego is here as well. But my favorite of the bunch has to be Melissa Mohr, author of “Holy S—t: A Brief History of Swearing” – an obvious choice for a series like this, but man does she deliver.

Through these experts, we get walked through the histories of these terms How much of what we think we know about them is actually true? Not much, as it turns out. Some of them were always unsavory, while others were commonly used for hundreds of years before crossing over into crassness. But how did that evolution happen? These experts give us quick-hit looks at the development of these terms over centuries until we arrive at the foul language we love so much today.

“History of Swear Words” is a lot of fun, but it isn’t without issues. The biggest – for me at least – is the fact that, well … it’s too short. The 20-minute episodes are more appetizer than entrée; sometimes, it feels like we’re just getting to the good stuff and we’re done. Then again, they left me wanting more, so maybe that was the plan from the beginning.

And of course, Nic Cage is a twitching, leering delight. Say what you will about his career choices, but no actor working today is as willing to give himself so fully over to the moment at hand. He’s the perfect host for this show for precisely this reason; while he may not be the go-to for any individual swear word, there’s no denying the relish with which he attacks every piece of profanity that he utters. He is, dare I say it, a national treasure (see what I did there?).

“History of Swear Words” is an unexpected and weird flex from Netflix, a double bird of sorts to the other streamers out there who are still playing catch-up. “Look at us,” they seem to be saying. “We can just throw money at a six-episode series devoted to cursing and turn it into part of the cultural discourse. If we can do that, is there anything we can’t do?”

A weird flex, but a welcome one. Comedians and academics cussing up a storm, all of it framed by a suitably bizarre hosting job from Nicolas Cage. What do I think of “History of Swear Words,” you ask?

I think it’s pretty f—ing good.

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 January 2021 13:39


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