Netflix's history of swear words: a lexical rollercoaster
Netflix’s new series, The History of Swear Words, hosts an all-star cast of comedians and language experts who discuss swear words’ power in culture and history. This fast-paced, provocative series takes on six iconic swear words in each 20 minute episode: F**k, S**t, B*tch, D**k, and P**sy. Nikki Glaser, Zainab Johnson, Sarah Silverman are among the cast of comedians for this series. The series balances between a raunchy comedy and an informative documentary that any linguistics nerd will enjoy. With Nicholas Cage as our host, The History of Swear Words explores the evolution of swear words from The Middle Ages to present day. The series explores why swear words have power in resistance movements and how they challenge conventional morality. The series makes the case that swear words are a marker of challenging authority figures in society, and swearing can have a cathartic effect on individuals.
One of the joys of The History of Swear Words is how the series embraces that profane words are so versatile. The beginning of the S**t episode features several comedians saying the word with popular add-ons. Noun swear words can typically substitute any noun, and slurs can be defamatory or reclaimed depending heavily on their context. The show is a rollercoaster that includes history lessons and socially distanced stand-up comedy. The show tackles music censorship in relation to systemic racism, and how swear words can be revered in the right context.
Melissa Mohr, Ph.D and author of Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, states, “Words don’t start out as swear words. They’re just words. All of a sudden, they start to access a culture’s deepest taboos and areas that the culture is really invested in.” The first episode, F**k, tackles this theme entirely. The episode dives into how phrases including “F**k the draft” and “F**k the war” became iconic in the anti-Vietnam War movement. The word itself has the power to show deep hurt and resentment with societal powers. It’s a word that is personally cathartic and socially shocking.
Other words, including B**ch and p**sy are offensive depending heavily on context and who is saying them. They are slurs that are used to denigrate women and emasculate men, but these words have also been reclaimed as a positive label. Nikki Glaser states, “Women hate to be called bitch because it is just so dismissive, and it is actually punishing us for standing up for ourselves.” The episode continues by citing times when bitch can be a positive word used for female empowerment, such as The Bitch Manifesto by Joreen Freeman in 1968, or the song Bitch by Meredith Brooks. In the same way, the word pussy can be a derogatory term used to emasculate men but has been reclaimed in the 21st century. The band Pussy Riot, WAP, and current discourse have reclaimed the word as a term of empowerment.
Reviews for this series have been met with mixed reviews, with negative reviews claiming that the series was unfunny and repetitive. Positive reviews, such as Slate’s “Nicholas’ Cage’s History of Swear Words is a Freakin’ Delight” by Karen Han gave credit to the depth in each episode. While I personally found the series informative and genuinely entertaining, I agreed with Daniel Fienberg’s critique, in his piece titled “History of Swear Words, TV Review” in the Hollywood Reporter, that the series did not mention George Carlin or Richard Pryor. He wrote, “But I'm a bit incredulous that a show with this title could go six episodes without anybody mentioning George Carlin. Certainly, the comics should have made sure that Carlin, Lenny Bruce, and Richard Pryor were acknowledged properly. They're not.” Nevertheless, the series was a fantastic balance between absurd and educational.