Makers of Netflix's 'History of Swear Words' Talk Their Favorite Four-Letter Word

We may use swear words in regular conversation, but many of us don't have the damnedest idea about the history behind them.

Netflix's History of Swear Words looks to change that. The new series—a joint production from the folks at Funny or Die and B17 Entertainment—explores the meaning and evolution of several dirty words. Pretty much every episode of the profanity-packed show opens with host Nicolas Cage—yes, you read that correctly—stirring in a whimsical study, surrounded by books while he paints, reads and pontificates about how we use explicit language. The Oscar winner's segments frame the episodes, each of which is dedicated to a different swear word.

In between Cage's appearances, we're treated to talking-head segments from several comedians—including Nick Offerman, Nikki Glaser and Sarah Silverman—in which they discuss how they use curse words in their work. ("If I had only one swear word to take with me to a desert island, it would probably be 'f**k,'" Glaser says at one point.) We also hear insights from etymology experts, see cartoons comically illustrating the words' histories and witness some relevant science experiments. (For instance, did you know that you can keep your hand in ice-cold water longer if you let out a few choice words that we can't publish here?) The six 20-minute episodes premiered on Netflix today, and are currently available.

Showrunner Bellamie Blackstone and Executive Producer Brien Meagher spoke to Newsweek recently about the making of History of Swear Words. "I think it's important to have these words, and it's important to know why we use them," Blackstone said. "You're saying them because you have a real reason for it. It may be the word that really gets the point across or explains how angry you are or how upset or how happy you are."

In our conversation, Blackstone and Meagher discussed the initial inspiration for the show, what it was like teaming up with Cage and what they think the future of profanity looks like. (And, yes, they did drop a few f-bombs.) This interview has been edited and condensed for the sake of length and clarity.

What inspired you to make this show?

Brian Meagher: From the B17 end, our production company, we try to make loud, fun, interesting shows that feel like you haven't seen or heard of them before. But in this case, it kind of derived from my children. Like most parents, we swear in front of them accidentally, and my daughters were just so curious about the words' meaning.

It's such a big deal—they, like, freeze, or blush, and it's so impactful. And they literally one day asked me where swear words came from, and I really didn't know. So talking to my business partner, Rhett [Bachner, of B17 Entertainment], we decided to explore a show, and we wanted to have a real strong comedic voice when doing so.

Nicolas Cage History of Swear Words
Still of Nicolas Cage, host of Netflix series "History of Swear Words." Courtesy of Netflix

Did you look at any other comedy shows in particular, for influence?

Bellamie Blackstone: There's so many, and so much of [our show] was about the relationships of some of these comedians, and knowing the work they've done and what they bring to the table, and how they use swearing in their acts. Folks use it in different ways.

Meagher: When we partnered with Funny or Die, it had a lot to do with the fact that they made Drunk History. Obviously with Drunk History, you're getting comedy and learning at the same time. It's delivered in a way that felt fresh. If you look at Drunk History or you look at Explained on Netflix, it's the type of show that has takeaways, that's delivered to the audience in a fun and entertaining way. So you are actually learning something while having a good time.

What was the most interesting part of bringing History of Swear Words to life?

Blackstone: It was really about learning all the different perspectives that the experts brought to the table. We had folks who have a neurology background, and those who had more of an etymology background. Seeing how swear words were so much a part of [people's] lives, in the culture, and the evolution of how these words affect us physically, emotionally, culturally—all those things that dig into all of that, to me, was the best part.

When they first brought the project to me, I thought, "Oh, this is going to be so fun," and it will be silly and lighthearted. But as you dig into it, you realize there's so many layers to it. None of this language is bad, and the idea that it's bad is a very simplified way to look at it. It's really so much of how our brain reacts to these words and why.

Did you have several hosts in mind, or was Nicolas Cage the only person you could envision hosting the series?

Blackstone: One hundred percent our first choice. He is just so intense and wonderful. He came at the project with such great ideas, and really made it his own. He's someone who studied language as an actor, it's so much part of his world, and to see how he really broke it down and was so thoughtful about what kind of things he wanted to say—he was a great partner.

Meagher: He managed to turn his hosting duties into a truly iconic performance. He was absolutely magnetic. We love working with him.

Nikki Glaser History of Swear Words
Production still of Nikki Glaser in Netflix series "History of Swear Words." Courtesy of Netflix

What was the most surprising thing you learned about swear words while working on the show?

Blackstone: Each word has its own journey, which is fun to discover. So few words have the same history and evolution, because they really are so culturally dependent and have their own past as they weave through culture and time.

It was so interesting to start with a word like "f**k," which had its own original meaning, which is fairly benign. Through time, it started to obviously take on the sexual connotation. And then, more interestingly, it began to take on all kinds of gamuts of emotion, from exclamation to anger to protest words.

And to take that journey [throughout the series] and end with a word like "damn," where you really see a word go from beginning, middle to end. You see this evolution, going from a word that's in the Bible, to something really profane—with damning someone to hell as the worst thing you could say to someone—to being a fairly benign word that we use without much thought. Just understanding how that cyclical nature of words work was fascinating.

Meagher: It was how the words are used—not necessarily in language, but the same word and the power of it. For example, "f**k" can be used as a weapon to hurt someone by writing a nasty online comment. But then "f**k" can be used as a rally cry or a tool for a disenfranchised group or a protest, like "F**k the draft." "F**k the police."

The other takeaway was the science. We put in the trailer that when you put your hand in freezing cold water, you can keep it in there longer by swearing. The fact that we use [profanity] almost 80 times a day on average per person and don't exactly fully understand its origins made us want to dive in deeper.

Benjamin Bergen History of Swear Words Netflix
Production still of Benjamin Bergen, PhD, Cognitive Scientist and author of "What The F" in Netflix series "History of Swear Words." Courtesy of Netflix

What do you think the future of swear words will be—as far as what's considered offensive or a swear word—in 20 years, 50 years or even 100 years?

Blackstone: From a generalized standpoint, a lot of these words will become less offensive, and other words, like words around gender stereotypes or words around race, are more offensive. When you talk to college-age kids these days, they don't rate "f**k" as a terribly offensive word, as they rate a lot of other words far more offensive. As those kids become 40, 50, 60 years old, that will shift. Language changes.

Isiah Whitlock Jr. History of Swear Words
Production still of Isiah Whitlock Jr. in Netflix series "History of Swear Words." Courtesy of Netflix

Do you think you will do a second season of History of Swear Words?

Blackstone: Absolutely. I just say that because I want one.

Meagher: There are a lot more swear words to explore, I'll just put it that way. We haven't even touched the combination swear words, or anything from the Urban Dictionary. And why I get so excited about the potential of future seasons is that you can't turn on TikTok and not hear a new word that the younger generation is coming up with—and I have to Google it because I have no idea what that even means.

What is your favorite swear word and why?

Blackstone: It's always going to be "f**k" because it has such a gamut of meanings. It can be the most exciting thing, it can be the most angry moment, it can be this moment of reclamation, the one word that gets across how I feel about this particular moment in time. As I said, as we went through each episode, I fell in love with different words for different reasons. Part of the beauty of this experience was getting a chance to learn why we use these words, why they're important to us and laugh along the process.

Meagher: Nikki Glaser said something along the lines of, "F**k is like the Tom Hanks of swear words. You can put it in anything and it would do an amazing job." Something like that. And I agree.