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Seven Not-So-Dirty Reasons to Watch History of Swear Words

Nicolas Cage, radiating Big Nic Energy in History of Swear Words. Photo: Adam Rose/Netflix

Warning: This article about a show about swearing contains a lot of swearing.

George Carlin famously noted that there are seven words you can’t say on television. But in the early 1970s, Carlin could not have imagined how quickly profanity and public acceptance of it would evolve. He also didn’t know about Netflix.

It seems safe to assume that, back then, the comedian could not have wrapped his mind around the idea that a platform would one day stream a show called History of Swear Words, which not only delves into the history of some of the most offensive things that a person can say but also includes repeated utterances of those things, no bleeps included.

There are six, not seven, episodes of History of Swear Words, which debuts today on Netflix. Perhaps that is a direct, cheeky commentary on Carlin’s old routine, or perhaps not. For the record, two of Carlin’s seven dirty words — fuck and shit — get their own episodes. (Two of his words, piss and tits, are barely considered swears anymore. The other three — cunt, cocksucker, and motherfucker — are perhaps being reserved for future seasons of History of Swear Words.)

As you might have guessed, History of Swear Words is not an Über-serious documentary. It’s mostly an educational lark that enables comedians to riff on obscenities and allows Nicolas Cage — I know, I know, I buried the lede — to act as an overly serious, Masterpiece-style host of the proceedings who tears into his dialogue like a bread-maker attacking a rare steak. (“You’ll eat this one bloody to feed your blood.”)

But there is also some genuinely interesting information in this light sextet of episodes. So with a nod to the great George Carlin, here’s a list of seven not-so-dirty reasons to watch History of Swear Words.

1. Nicolas Cage
Cage, an actor known for barring no holds and blasting through Do Not Enter signs, does exactly what you’d hope for as the host of a show like this. At one point, with all the seriousness of a pallbearer, he declares, “Shit is the great equalizer.” During the fuck episode, he stands up in the faux library that acts as a set and just screams “Fuuuuuuck” with all the fury of a man who knows he will never actually be Elvis but still hasn’t quite accepted it. Sometimes he takes his line readings in directions that can’t possibly be predicted. “Shit is in a class of cuss words all its own,” he says during episode No. 2. (Get it?) “Unlike desirable, fun words like fuck, pussy, and ass” — and, at this point, Cage puts so much Dijon mustard on the word ass that he somehow gives it at least three syllables. Truly you have to see and hear it to believe it.

2. The Episodes Are Short
So this one is part good thing, part bad thing, but, depending on how you plan to watch this, mostly a good thing. Each of the six episodes — and because you’re dying to know, I’ll say right here that the other swear words covered are bitch, dick, pussy, and damn — is only 20 minutes long. If you’re looking for something amusing to watch at the end of a long day that doesn’t require a major time commitment, that’s perfect. On the other hand, History of Swear Words feels a bit thin as a result. Some of these words cry out for more examination (more on this when we get to the pussy episode).

3. It’s Educational!
I’m not saying that History of Swear Words should be shown in public schools, although with Betsy DeVos on her way out, who knows what we could accomplish? But there is a legitimate historical and educational component to the series. Actual lexicographers, professors, and cultural experts appear throughout to trace the various meanings of these words and how they’ve changed over time. For example, I did not know that the use of the word bitch spiked during the suffragette movement in the 1920s and then again during the feminist movement in the 1970s. I am in no way surprised by that information, but I had never seen it confirmed in this manner. Bitch also was not identified in the dictionary as a disparaging word until 2015 — excuse me??

I also did not realize that, at least according to this show, the sweariest actor in the history of film is … Jonah Hill? The Wolf of Wall Street does a lot of the heavy lifting there. (Leonardo DiCaprio is in second place, for the same reason, if these statistics are accurate.)

4. The Presence of Isiah Whitlock Jr.
The participation of multiple comedians in the series — Sarah Silverman, Nikki Glaser, Zainab Johnson, London Hughes, and others — is welcome. But the smartest decision, aside from hiring Cage, was asking Isiah Whitlock Jr., fine actor and the best deliverer of the word shit in the history of television, to participate. “Shit,” he explains at one point, “has become a huge part of my career.” We are all greater for it.

5. Scholars Saying Bad Words
We’ve heard all of these comedians spit profanities forever. What’s even better is listening to distinguished experts talk about swearing in such serious, edifying terms. For example, Melissa Mohr, author of the book Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, seems like a very intelligent, bookish woman. So when she says the word fuckboy, it really makes you hear that word in a whole new way.

6. The Pussy Episode
As a cisgender woman, I may be biased, but the pussy episode strikes me as the most interesting, perhaps because, culturally, we’re still struggling with how to handle it. As the episode points out, pussy has progressed from description of a cat to term of affection for a woman to, alternately, a synonym for female genitalia or a word often used to degrade weak men. There’s an argument to be made that women took control of the word in the Trump era, taking the president’s “grab ’em by the pussy” comment and turning that into a pussy hat. But as the commenters note, some people still could not handle it at all when Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion put out “WAP.” An entire docuseries could be devoted to the word pussy and what it says about feminism is all I am saying.

7. Once Again: Nicolas Cage
Just to be as clear as possible: While there are a number of enjoyable aspects to History of Swearing, the show would not hold together nearly as well without the inimitable presence of Mr. Cage. “So what does the future hold for damn?” he asks in the final episode. “Does it have any hope of surviving in this vulgar, fast-paced world of fuck, shit?” What other actor could infuse those questions with such gravity and absurdity at the same time? Jonah Hill?? Please. Get the fuck outta here.

Seven Not-So-Dirty Reasons to Watch History of Swear Words