"The History of Swear Words" series on Netflix

This just came out on Netflix-- my wife and I watched ep1, and I have to say, it was a goddamn delight.

In a bit of inspired casting, Nicolas Cage hosts the show, sitting besuited in front of a fireplace, “Masterpiece Theatre” style, with an old-fashioned standing globe opened up to reveal it’s a bar (for some reason I thought that was a nice touch).

Ep1 came out strong with the big daddy of swears, fuck. (I will spoiler-blur because I’m not sure of the profanity rules in Cafe Society). Surprisingly, the series seems to go progressively milder with the remaining 5 episodes: shit , bitch , dick , pussy , and damn. Seems like the order could’ve been reversed, working up to the big “F”. But I guess they wanted to go big right out of the f’ing gate.

The show alternates between comedians and actual lexicographers, and goes surprisingly in depth into the history and etymology of the word. Entertaining AND educational!

George Carlin led the way long ago: :+1:

I saw the “Fuck” episode last night, and give it a marginal thumbs up. The comedians explaining why they like saying “fuck” got a bit repetitive; I would have liked to have heard more from the lexicographers and etymologists.

A question that I’ve long had and hoped to hear answered, but was disappointed: where do we find written usages of obscenities during the age of censorship? I wanted to see actual references to “fuck” in writing between 1200 and the 1960’s, and didn’t get any.

The OED is your friend for isolated examples, though it does acknowledge the problem of `fuck’ being not often recorded in print even though its use in speech was “frequent”:

“Yit be his feiris he wald haue fukkit / Ye brek my hairt, my bony ane” (William Dunbar, 1503)

“His wife is fucked yes and damn well fucked too.” (James Joyce)

It’s cute and fluffy and all but I heartily question why they’d go all out on “bitch” but completely ignore the actually sweary word “cunt.” You wanna talk transgression, that’s your target right there. And “damn,” really? Doesn’t even go on the list. As I said, cute and fluffy.

I watched all of it over the weekend. Good for some entertainment, and a little bit of actual information. I did think they could have done more with “bitch”: I’m sure there were a few minutes of “funny” that could have been cut in favor of addressing the “complain” meaning and the ‘80s slang of "bitchin’" = “good.”

Maybe they’re saving “cunt” and “cock” for season 2…? You could probably do a whole season on vulgar terms for genitalia.

Just a guess, but most likely writing that was never intended for publication – people’s private diaries, letters, and that sort of thing.


I sat a while at Sir W. Batten’s with Sir J. Mennes &c., where he told us, among many other things, how in Portugall they scorn to make a seat for a house of office. But they do shit all in pots and so empty them in the river.


C.f. the Regional Idioms thread over in MPSIMS (&/or the childhood misconceptions thread)–when I first started hearing my peers using the usual suspects pejoratives, I assumed that they were of local and recent vintage. “14 year-old Jimmy O. Baker from Parma coined the term “f***” in 1968 after his football team lost a hard-fought game…” That not only adults were using them, but that their history often stretched back many decades if not centuries pretty much blew my mind when I figured that out later in my youth.

I’ve only watched the first two episodes so far, but that’s been my reaction too. I would have liked to see more on history and use in literature rather than comedians talking about their favorite swear words. Ok, but a bit disappointing and bland for a program about offensive words.

Watched the Fuck episode. It reminded me of my English Composition class when I was a Freshman in college. It was 1977 and we had a TA for the breakout labs (she was thrilled to tell us about this new show Saturday Night Live). Anyway, she had us go to the library and use the OED to look up any word we wanted, and our smart-assed small group decided to use FUCK. We found lots of the same history that’s in the episode, plus a few others (such as Fundamentals Uf Carnal Knowledge). My contribution was the various usages I heard the previous summer while working on a construction crew. The TA was thrilled with our presentation, considering the other groups had chosen “safe” words. The episode reminded me of a college bull session talking shit (which is the second episode). This episode wasn’t any more in-depth than what we came up with in 1977, except they included the movie references. Which means kids will love the series.