The latest docuseries gem to be released on Netflix, History of Swear Words, takes a unique and creative approach to making lexicography interesting through an examination of all the dirty words that we use, their origins, their development, how our culture shapes the meaning we give these words and the ways in which we may react to many of them in the future.
Warning: This article contains explicit content. Because we don’t give a fuck.
I’ve gotta be honest… even as a massive docuseries fanboy, when I saw that Nicolas Cage had a Netflix doc analysing and describing the semantic, syntagmatic, and paradigmatic relationships within the lexicon of swear words, I had my doubts… but this one really surprised me and piqued my interest in a way that few others have.
Starting off… Nicolas Cage is actually super… cool… in this. He plays the role of narrator, dressed in a sharp suit with a neatly trimmed beard that gives off an air of hipster-esque sophistication. Sat next to oak desks occupied by crystal decanters of scotch and sundry, Cage takes us on a journey through the history of 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.
Swearing copiously throughout, Cage guides the viewer through the history of six different swear words, starting with their origins, taking us through the way each word has been shaped by changes to our culture and political developments. It makes for fascinating viewing to consider the semantics behind swear words, how they shape and are shaped by political circumstances and how we’ve managed to reclaim words like bitch over the years through women’s suffrage and empowerment.
And if, like me, you’re often told that you swear too much or that it’s a sign of having a limited vocabulary, you can take comfort in telling other people to fuck off and throw back facts about the lexicography of the swear words and how they came into being. In fact, there’s a short segment in the series where swearing is shown to have some positive effects for people, including raising our ability to withstand physical pain.
But, for me, it’s definitely the social critique that Cage and Netflix manage to string together in History of Swear Words that really makes for a spectacular docuseries. The coming together of the boring linguistic analysis and this iconic maniac, a couple of charismatic comedians and the odd gravitation we all have towards using foul language shines a light on the importance of language, and of words.
Particularly in the episodes on the history of pussy and bitch, the History of Swear Words put a lot of emphasis into how these words came to demean women over time until the latter half of the 20th century when these words have been reclaimed and reframed as our society progresses and women become more empowered. But the real lesson comes in the final episode: Damn.
Seems like a pretty lame swear word next to fuck, shit or dick right? Exactly. And that’s the point. Damn used to be a particularly offensive word a century ago, to the point that it was the only officially banned word for Hollywood film producers until the mid-point of the 20th Century. While the word shit was not at all offensive in the 15th century, but damn was off-limits, our words have changed completely due to our modern conception of privacy and the waning relevance of the church in modern society. It provides some important insights into the way our world has changed and is changing without putting you to sleep in the process.
So it has to be said that despite coming across as a little gross and crass and machismo, the History of Swearing tackles important social issues, provides some enlightening factoids that may surprise you throughout and along the journey you might be quite surprised by Nicolas Cage’s completely out-of-character charisma, which makes for what I felt was an incredibly good viewing experience.
Essential Millennial rating: 4 out of 5 avocados