I have always found the history and life cycle of swear words fascinating as they become less and more offensive over time. Naturally the moment I saw a trailer on Netflix about a documentary covering it narrated by the greatest living actor Nicolas Cage, I was so in.
The comedy/doco series History of Swear Words kicks off with the big bad “Fuck” before moving on to “Shit”, “Bitch”, “Dick”, “Pussy”, and finally “Damn”. Each episode goes a little into the etymology of the word, the current context, and then multiple peoples views on the word.
The guests are a combination of qualified people to speak on how words work, like a linguist, and a bunch of comedians and actors to give a present day commentary of the words. This is certainly a clever idea because it should present a balance of the technical aspects of the words, and the practical use of it. What it winds up doing though is confusing the situation and sometimes undermining the points.
Though as far as facts go, learning the final words Roald Dahl uttered on this planet was a treat. I mean I Googled it straight away to confirm it wasn’t a weird joke, but the story was true and it tickled me more than I want to admit.
One of the toughest parts of a documentary like this is choosing the tone, and to be fair the documentary was given the comedy billing so it was always going to be mixed. But I wasn’t expecting it to be this mixed.
Some people would make the opposite points depending on which word was covered, making blanket comments like suggesting swearing isn’t an issue, but then taking objection to a specific word. I found this throughout the show, and it winds up displaying how subjective being offended is, which is kind of unhelpful in the world today when people are itching to learn more.
Then there are times that the same comedians will essentially make the same comment repeatedly, which instead of being stitched together to add value, it winds up repeating itself and getting annoying.
Is all swearing wrong? How do you know when to use a word, or is it the context, in which case which context? How do you navigate around the situation of someone taking offense where you didn’t mean it? These are all questions that are not cleared up by the show.
This is where you need to know what you are in for. If you want an entertaining short show that has a bunch of interesting facts and some solid jokes with Nicolas Cage screaming Fuck, then History of Swear Words will certainly do that.
If you want an interesting documentary that will dig into the linguistics at play behind swearing, how it works and how to not offend people in the real world, this won’t achieve that. Still it is good for a laugh and a tiny bit of learning.