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In times as cursed as these, four-letter words are our friends

Nicolas Cage hosts Netflix's "History of Swear Words."
Nicolas Cage hosts Netflix's "History of Swear Words."Adam Rose/Netflix

The latest original docu-series on Netflix has been mislabeled a “comedy.” “History of Swear Words,” a bite-size, six-part series about the evolution of some of the English language’s most notorious turns of phrase, does in fact provide a lot of laughs. The art of swearing, after all, is rarely not funny.

But given the timing of this show (which debuted Tuesday), when each day of our shared existence brings a new round of thoroughly legitimate excuses to blurt “WTF!?,” you might say our dependence on swear words can be deadly serious.

“I think there’s a need now for profanity and swearing more than any other time,” says the film critic Elvis Mitchell, one of several resident experts — comedians and etymologists, mostly — who appear. Host Nicolas Cage gives the show a faux-”Masterpiece Theatre”-style vibe, sitting in a leathery, book-filled study, with a wood globe bar cart by his side.

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a hoot,” Cage says, trying on alternatives for size during the episode that focuses on the word “damn.” That’s the mildest of the six curse words under scrutiny, but for years prior to the premiere of “Gone With the Wind” (1939), “damn” was a Hollywood no-no.


The doors of perception blew open with the runaway popularity of “Damn Yankees,” the 1955 Broadway musical. More recently, the rapper Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize for his album “DAMN.,” completing the word’s long march toward acceptability.

Other episodes feature the wit and wisdom of the small handful of words we still can’t print in a newspaper. (Unless, that is, the outgoing president uses them.) Episode one begins with Cage haughtily intoning “Sugar. Honey. Iced Tea,” a not-so-subtle hint at the first four-letter word they’ll be stirring up.

There’s an episode on the word that makes up the title of Meredith Brooks’s Grammy-nominated pop hit from 1997. There’s one on the nickname for men named Richard (not Rick — the other one), and another on the descriptor for the pink hats worn at the 2017 Women’s March.


And then there’s the grand finale, the forcefully naughty four-letter word that comic Jim Jefferies calls “number one with a bullet,” the one that long ago meant simply “to hit.” The expletive that captures “the full range of human emotion,” as Cage says.

In 1971, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision when it ruled that a young man named Paul Robert Cohen had his First Amendment rights violated. Cohen had been arrested in a California courtroom for wearing a jacket inscribed with a slogan that strongly suggested what the government could do, metaphorically speaking, with its military draft.

Just a few years before, Lenny Bruce had been hounded by crusading detectives and prosecutors for his creative use of language. By the mid-1970s, the culture had caught up with its own hypocrisy: the age of midnight movies and the dawn of cable TV spelled a four-letter word — D-O-O-M — for delicate ears. George Carlin debuted his “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” routine in 1972; oddly, it’s not referenced here, though his famously lyrical list does diverge, polysyllabically, from this “History of Swear Words.”

Split into 20-minute episodes, the Netflix show is packed with pithy movie clips and the occasional Terry Gilliam-style animated segment. The contributing comedians, among them Nick Offerman, Nikki Glaser, and Sarah Silverman, have their share of fun with the subject matter.


But it’s the linguists who really give the series its transgressive heft, notably Melissa Mohr, author of “Holy [Expletive]: A Brief History of Swearing,” and Kory Stamper, the lexicographer responsible for adding the phrase “F-bomb” to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

In medieval times, they point out, the worst thing you could utter was to swear “by God’s bones.” (Well, I never!) They also explain that, before we converged on our favorite all-purpose expletive to describe the daily act of evacuation, our ancestors used fancier terms such as “beray” and “bescumber.” (The latter, in particular, might be due for a comeback.)

At one point, a few of the commentators weigh in on the concept of the “minced oath.” Those are the euphemisms we resort to when coarser language is inappropriate — “gosh darn it,” or “fooey.”

Until we’ve put these various pandemics in the rearview mirror, it’s safe to say we will not be mincing many oaths.

James Sullivan is the author of “Seven Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin.” Email him at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.