History of Swear Words (2021) s01e02 Episode Script


Iced tea. Mm-mm-mm.
Sounds good, doesn't it? [scoffs]
Maybe slightly sweet,
could maybe use a squeeze of lemon,
but still, it rings pleasantly
to the ear.
It sounds nice.
It sounds like something
you'd sip with relish,
swoosh around in your mouth
and swallow with a big smile.
But what if I told you that this phrase,
iced tea…"
is actually a secret code
used to unlock a swear word
so taboo, so graphic…
that most of us
can't even handle hearing it
without seeing in our mind's eye
the very disgusting…
bodily function that this particular
swear word is used to describe.
Sugar, Honey, Iced Tea.
That's good shit.
[cat meows]
I didn't get shit.
Not even happy birthday.
I don't give a shit.
My favorite swear word is shit.
Holy shit!
I mean, obviously when I think
about shit, I think about poop, right?
That's obvious.
Why is shit a swear word?
It's a four-letter word
that means exactly the same thing
as the four-letter word of "crap."
"I've a bunch of shit to pick up."
No one's offended.
We make all kinds of cool shit.
They find out about the cool shit on the
internet, they'll want the cool shit.
Shit is…
such an easy word to use.
'Cause you can add it
with any other swear word
and it becomes something,
like, cool and fun.
"Ugh! This is some fucked shit,
some ass shit."
- "Some bitch shit."
- "Shit ass."
"Look at that
fucking shit ass over there."
"Some dope shit. Some damn shit."
"You are in trouble. Some damn shit?"
So, what are the origins of caca and
doo-doo's rebellious older brother?
Words don't start out as swear words.
They're just words.
And then, all of a sudden,
they start to access, um…
uh, a culture's sort of deepest taboos
and just areas that the culture
is really invested in.
Somebody decided, at some point,
in the history of its etymology,
that this is a swear word.
It's silly.
"Shit" probably came from…
an emotion.
I mean, I know the smart answer
is, like…
it probably came from some Lat
root word in a Latin lang
Yeah, so some bullshit like that.
[Melissa] "Shit" is an Anglo-Saxon word.
Like most swear words,
it was not obscene at first.
It was just the word for excrement.
In medieval English,
there are medical texts
where, you know, talking
about excretion, they use "shit."
In the Middle Ages, going
to the bathroom was a communal experience.
You didn't have
a private room where you'd go
by yourself and sit on the toilet.
You had a privy with multiple seats.
It could be you and someone
you didn't know very well,
or it could be you and your whole family.
That is so beautiful. The image
of all of us gathered together, shitting.
Wouldn't we live in a much better society
if instead of stepping into the bathroom,
and getting on our phone
and answering emails,
and, like, posting on Instagram,
we sat next to another human being
and said, "Hey, man, how are you today?
How's that shit going for you?"
Looked at somebody
in their eyes while they shat.
It would really destigmatize
a lot of what makes us ashamed
in the bathroom, I think.
And we'd see a lot quicker
waiting times at Starbucks.
That's some bullshit.
There's a really great story
about where "shit" comes from.
It's a folk etymology about how, uh…
they used to ship shit
across the Atlantic.
"Shit" comes from,
supposedly, "Ship High In Transit."
The old story there is,
somehow in the 1800s,
people would have to ship
manure across the Atlantic Ocean.
Mark my words,
one day I'll be paying to have
my manure shipped across the bloody ocean.
[Melissa] You'd have to put it high up.
If it were in the hold of the ship,
somehow the methane gas
and heat would make it set on fire.
Aah, who am I foolin'?
I'm still hung up on
some silly romantic notion of life at sea.
[mockingly] "Freedom,
adventure, treasure."
[scoffs] Pfeh!
In sooth, the only thing
that's guaranteed in this life is sh
[man] That was a bit of a lame-ass story.
"I could have come up
with a better story than that" bad.
I mean, goddamn. [chuckles]
[Nicolas] Before we continue
on the history of "shit,"
let's explore the accomplishments
of one of its greatest advocates.
The actor Isaiah Whitlock
came to prominence, uh…
in The Wire for his use of the word "shit"
in ways that nobody else could say it.
"Shit" has become
a huge part of my career.
I didn't plan it that way.
He says, "shiiiit."
I'm from South Bend, Indiana.
My family's from Tennessee.
So we have the South
and we have the Midwest.
So I blend the two
to come up with…
…which I started doing
in Spike Lee's movie, The 25th Hour.
Did it in The Wire.
That's when it kind of exploded.
"Shit" is for Isaiah Whitlock
what "fuck" is for Samuel L. Jackson.
In fact, they're the "Ebony and Ivory"
of the 21st century
with those two epithets.
[Isaiah] Okay, so here we go.
I'm gonna do
the world's longest "shit."
Science has shown that saying "shit"
can be almost as good
for us as the act itself.
So, there are
scientific studies that say that you…
feel better when you swear.
If you're in pain and you swear,
your pain threshold becomes higher.
And there are groups that don't swear.
They don't use profanity,
but they do tend to walk the line.
So you'll get people who say, "Well,
I can't swear," for whatever reason,
but they freely use words like
"fudge" or "frick" or "shoot."
And those are all euphemisms of swears.
They all function
the same way that a swear functions.
Many people think
that swearing is cathartic.
That when you have
some bottled-up emotions, it's useful.
Like, just think about women in labor.
If you're pushing a human
through your body and out of your vagina,
you don't wanna have to say 90 words.
You don't wanna have to say,
"Oh, my God, I'm pushing this human…"
No. You say, "Fuuuuck!"
And you push it out.
All right.
[man] So we're gonns do
an experiment. You down?
- Okay, cool. Let's go. Is it freezing?
- [man] So…
So the scientist asks you to stick your
hand in a bucket of nearly freezing water
and tells you either to say a swear word
over and over for as long as you can,
or to say some neutral word.
And it turns out
that you can hold your hand in the water
about 50% longer if you're swearing
than if you're not.
[squeals] Okay.
[gasps] So, um…
Motherfucking bitch.
- Silly meeeee…
- Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit…
- Fuck.
- [laughing] A, B, C, D, E… ♪
…iiiiiiiiii… ♪
Shit. Shit! Shit.
Aaargh! Aaaargh!
Pieces of…
Shit. Shit. Shit.
For some reason I don't wanna say "pussy."
"Pussy" isn't gonna help me through this.
- Eeeh… aaaah! I can't do it. I can't.
- [bell rings]
- Yeah, man.
- [bell rings]
- I'm done. That's enough.
- [bell rings]
- Fuck! [laughs]
- [bell rings]
- Oh, fuck.
- [bell rings]
Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.
[bell rings]
- How many seconds?
- Two minutes and 20 seconds.
[screams] That's real!
I wanted to swear so bad.
You don't understand.
The more I said "shit,"
I felt like I was, like, in a trance.
The power of cursing.
Like, it's important.
It can help us withstand pain.
Swearing is powerful.
Thank fucking God that we get to swear.
The ice experiment raises some
interesting questions about why we swear,
but also about how we swear.
To understand the relationship
between the brain and the profane,
we must look at the curious case
of a 19th-century railroad worker
named Phineas Gage.
And that is with a G. Gage.
[man] Phineas Gage was on a job
to lay railroad near Cavendish, Vermont.
Boy, oh, boy. Lucky me.
Another day, another hole in the ground.
[man] Legend has it
he forgot to pack the hole.
It ignited and blew
a three-foot-six-inch iron rod
completely through his skull,
- landin' a full 82 feet behind him.
- [yells]
Doctors were amazed he was able
to speak immediately after the accident.
I say, I say, shit!
Shit on a goddamn shingle!
But everyone who knew him
- said his behavior changed drastically.
- Shit! I say, I say…
That he was no longer Gage.
- He became more vulgar in his speech…
- Shit!
- …more aggressive in his personality.
- Damn shit!
- And findin' work became difficult.
- Goddamn shit!
Shingle shit!
And he also lost
most of his ability to produce language.
Except when he would struggle
to try to produce words, he would swear.
The rod pierced his frontal lobe.
And when it did that,
it compromised parts of the brain
that are responsible
for planning,
for social reasoning.
These are the very parts of the brain we
use any time we want to inhibit impulses.
They saw this as a case where you could go
from being a nice guy to an asshole.
[Nicolas] So, how do we use
the word "shit"?
I don't think I use "shit" as an expletive
because it's become such a part
of the way that I talk in general.
When I'm using the word "shit,"
I'm usually saying, like,
"I need to pick up some shit,"
or "I need to go drop some shit off."
And then if I'm cussing, I'm like, "Fuck."
"Shit" and "fuck" are
pretty interchangeable.
But, like, "fuck" has
a little more power than "shit."
So I suppose, like, as I'm forming
sentences in my brain, I…
I make those choices appropriately.
"Shit" is is bringing
a knife to a gun fight, you know?
"Shit" is also very effective.
Uh… I'm a big fan of "shit."
[flies buzzing]
That is one big pile of shit.
Let's say I… go to a restaurant.
I'm like, "You know what?
I wanna try this new shit on the menu.
Let me taste this shit first."
I call the waiter over and I'm like,
"Is this the shit that I ordered?
Because this shit don't taste
like the other shit."
The waiter's like,
"What shit you talking about?"
And I'm like, "The shit that I ordered."
And he's like, "Shiiit."
I think in the comedy world,
jokes around the word "shit" can vary
whether or not they're considered
lowbrow or highbrow or not,
based on if you're
talking about, like, "shit" as "feces."
Is it lowbrow?
It depends on whose brow it is.
I mean, you can't just say
in one fell swoop
that shit jokes are lowbrow.
It might be brilliant.
I just sharted.
- I don't know what that means.
- I tried to fart, shit came out.
- Ugh.
- I sharted.
I got up on stage,
talkin' my women's liberation bullshit.
Them kids wasn't tryin' to hear that.
Then I said, "Okay, who took
a shit on the tour bus first?"
They died laughin'.
Potty humor can be pretty sophisticated.
I think it's, like, kind of taking
its own journey where…
people turn their nose up at it
like it's unsophisticated and it's easy.
It might be, like, New Yorker-level stuff.
It all depends on the context of it.
"Shit" is
in a class of cuss words all its own.
Unlike desirable fun words,
like "fuck," "pussy" and "ass,"
"shit" is something
virtually nobody wants.
- [typing]
- So how did "shit" become offensive?
[Melissa] Other words for "shit" from
the Renaissance were "beray"
and "bescumber."
And these words meant
to spray things with shit, basically.
It was a kind of word for violent pooping.
But you can sort of see why
they wouldn't be good swear words.
They're not punchy.
"Shit" is a… a little bit more bounded
in terms of where it can go lexically,
just because it's tied to waste,
and so it tends to be used
mostly of things that are not great.
The word itself was
fairly inoffensive for a very long time.
You probably wouldn't bring it up
in casual conversation
unless you were talking to someone
who dealt specifically with shit,
like a farmer, or perhaps an attorney,
ha, ha, ha.
But as we got farther and farther
from other people's shit,
we distanced ourselves
from the word as well,
avoiding any mention of it
altogether for hundreds of years.
But why did we run away
from number two for so long?
More than likely,
it was due to the invention of plumbing.
People became wealthier
in the Renaissance.
They started to be able
to build houses with more rooms,
and this created
our modern idea of privacy.
And so, once you had
the idea of privacy and that, you know,
some of these functions
should be done alone,
not with all these people,
we got a taboo around excretion.
And then that made
the word shit a swear word.
[Nicolas] By the 1930s,
we start to see the rise
of shit phrases like "shitfaced,"
"shithead" and "chickenshit"
enter our lexicon.
But its glass runneth over
with uses and variations,
and the word took on
a broader role in our culture and slang.
Especially over the last 50 years,
"shit" has come a long way.
It occupies this really precious
real estate among profanities.
It's offensive enough that you still get
some credibility for saying it.
- But it's not so offensive that…
- [crackling]
…it's basically…
prices itself out of the market.
Dee Snider, lead singer of the band…
[yells] …Twisted Sister!
wore a tank top and plenty of product
in the halls of Congress
to defend artistic speech in 1985.
The Parents Music Resource Center,
co-founded by Tipper Gore,
set the goal of increasing control
over children's access
to music deemed to have explicit lyrics.
I have been asked to come
here to present my views on, quote,
"The subject of the content
of certain sound recordings
and suggestions that recording packages
be labeled
to provide a warning
to prospective purchasers
of sexually explicit or other
potentially offensive content," unquote.
[Nicolas] The result of those hearings?
Parental Advisory stickers.
There was this momentum,
this head of steam
that Black culture had developed
that Tipper Gore and a bunch of people
tried to stop
with the Parental Advisory stickers.
The Parental Advisory sticker,
to me, was implicitly racist.
And to all my friends.
We all thought it was racist, because
it came about in the '80s, when hip-hop
finally became a commercial force.
It was no longer an underground thing.
I thought, "This is a misunderstanding.
This is a missed opportunity
to have a conversation
about where the culture is going."
More conservative people
try and invalidate
people they disagree with by, like,
pointing to their language as vulgar.
As if to say vulgar language is a sign
of, like, a lack of education
or intelligence or something like that.
It was just another fear
of youth culture and Black culture.
I think it's all respectability,
politics and policing
that perpetuate and uphold, like, racism.
All these things that scared
parents and scared Tipper Gore,
only thing those records did
were make kids want them more.
It was like a fire sale sign
in the suburbs.
"Dude, this one's got
a Parental Advisory sign on."
I hated when people
bought the ones without it.
I hate wonderin'
what the word could and would be.
I did gravitate towards getting CDs
that had Parental Advisories on 'em.
Like, I remember
Word of Mouf, by Ludacris,
and it has, like, a big…
kind of like a blowjob mouth.
And it was, like, hyper-sexual
and it had the Parental Advisory on it.
And I was like, "Oh shi-i-i-it."
Censoring is not a good thing for me.
Who's deciding
these are bad words? Who did it?
Who said, "This is the worst word"?
Which brings us
to a time-honored tradition
that continues
to help reshape our culture.
The transformative power
of African-American Vernacular English.
Once again, we owe
a shitload of thanks to Black culture
for taking linguistic toilet seats
and turning them into thrones.
"Shit" went from being something
we avoided seeing, hearing,
or saying at all costs
to being th e shit.
[Kory] So "shit" really…
starting in the 1970s, 1980s,
there's sort of this new slang
that starts taking "shit"
and just sort of uses it everywhere.
Imagine you've been called
the worst you could be called so often,
it doesn't mean anything to you anymore.
That, in fact, you look for ways of
showing how that worst thing you could
that you're described as being
is something that people should want.
Now, if something is the shit,
and this is how you differentiate
between the good and the bad,
that means it is excellent.
It's kind of like taking
that negative and inverting it.
If somebody says I'm the shit,
I'mma be like, "Well, thank you
so much. I'm glad that you recognize it."
That's about taking the profane and making
it sacred, as far as I'm concerned.
"Bad" used to be only bad
until Michael Jackson encountered it.
"Fat" used to be negatively toned
until it traded an "F" for a "PH."
"Shit" is the shit.
So to be the shit,
is the dopest shit ever.
But you could be shitty,
and then you ain't shit. Got it?
There's a lyric in a song,
it's like, to me, the most romantic lyric.
He says, um…
"You're the shit and I'm knee-deep in it."
I think the word should…
should be just a word.
I think it's a regular word.
No one using "shit" 100 years ago,
200 years ago would have ever imagined
"This shit is delicious"
being something positive.
"Shit" is
just a couple decades behind "crap."
If you feel like you can say "crap"
in absolutely any circumstance,
that's where "shit" is going too.
No matter if
you're tired of taking somebody's shit
or you're taking one yourself,
remember, "shit" is the great equalizer.
No matter your race,
your religion or creed,
king or peasant,
everybody shits!
- [crowd cheering and applauding]
- That's it.
Call The Guinness Book of World Records.
That's it. I'm done.
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