Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me: probably the biggest lie of childhood and far more damaging in the long term than Santa, Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy combined.
While they have the power to uplift, encourage, insult and torment, words are still just words, right? Well, yes and no.
In History of Swear Words, a Netflix Original series hosted by an impeccably groomed Nicolas Cage (whose face, while bearded, looks suspiciously smooth), there is much to learn about words that have evolved over centuries from simple descriptive meanings – no more, no less – to ones that have the ability to offend or malign … often determined by context.
Swear words ahead!
Warning: This article, about a show about swear words, contains many swear words.
Swear words come in different strengths (and have been scientifically proven to increase physical strength and endurance). This short six-part series of 20-minute episodes opens strong with “fuck”; in the opening of the trailer, Cage stands arms flung wide and yells it in a lengthy and cathartic manner.
So it’s a bit coy of Netflix to title this and each subsequent episode using asterisks. It’s not fooling anyone. We came here for the cussing, after all.
Fuck is a wonderfully expressive word and can be applied in just about any situation from me to you to us to this to that, to convey any emotion, so it’s a good place to begin. The remaining episodes slide downhill in intensity: Sh*t, Bitch, D**k, Pu**y and Damn.
Joining our suave and saucy host are several comedians and actors, who inject their opinions and humour into the use of each swear word. They are balanced by an almost equal number of clever people, people with PhDs, professors and authors and such, specifically experts in the field of swearing, who delve into the etymology and transformation of definitions.
This is why “bitch” doesn’t need to be watered down; it is and always has been (albeit spelled differently) the name for a female dog. But just because the dictionaries say as much, it doesn’t mean anyone can run around calling others that. Telling a woman she’s a bitch can be completely out of line and carries all sorts of negative connotations. However, it’s okay for gay guys to say it to each other and can actually be quite a pleasing term of affection, depending on the delivery. See? Context.
This is not for prudes, it’s not for the easily shocked, and it’s not for serious puritans. From the rest of us, it gets a solid “fuck yeah!”
Also spelled out in full is “damn”. Again, it’s a commonly accepted word in religious circles, and it was once used in a literal sense: saying “damn you to hell!” could carry a lot of weight. Nowadays, we find it rather tame, but what is interesting is how those who don’t wish to splutter expletives like “goddamnit!” will say instead “gosh darn it!”. It’s universally understood these two sentiments are identical, merely conveyed slightly differently. What makes one okay and the other taboo? Words are fascinating, and I’m a word nerd.
History of Swear Words uses some very cool graphics, and there are lots of movie sound bites and some fabulously obscure facts to propel the episodes, such as the relevance of the raunchiness of 1930s blues star Lucille Bogan‘s lyrics. If anything, the 20-minute format is not long enough to get into the real meatiness of the topic.
Cage is an entertaining host, and there’s a lot of tongue in cheek. This is not for prudes, it’s not for the easily shocked, and it’s not for serious puritans. From the rest of us, it gets a solid “fuck yeah!”.
My fun fact takeaway? Samuel L Jackson does not hold the record for the most “fucks” in a movie. Who does? The answer will surprise you…