Nicolas Cage Curses Through the Bland Obscenities of ‘History of Swear Words’

Swearing has become so common in our modern society that there are now few dangerous or spicy things about the act itself. That’s just one of the realities that waters down Netflix’s curious new documentary series “History of Swear Words.” Would we even be talking about it if it was hosted by anyone other than Nicolas Cage? The Oscar-winner turned B-movie cult figure is reduced to being a mere host, introducing us to swear words we hear all the time now on movies, music and while surviving big city traffic. What merit there is to the show is that you can at least learn some random information from it on how favorite words like “fuck,” “shit” and “bitch” came to be.

The format of the series is no different from your average educational program. One can wickedly imagine how this show could be used in a post-Covid world to kill time in some bored middle school classroom. It’s like a potty-mouthed “Bill Nye the Science Guy.” Sitting in a set adorned with fancy liquors and refined book cases, Cage does his best stoic stare before yelling “fuuuuck!” That’s of course the only word that could possibly open this series. A whole parade of comics and experts explain to us how swear words are used, their origins and what they mean in a greater, cultural context. The great challenge faced by comics like London Hughes, Nikki Glaser, Sarah Silverman and Nick Offerman is that you can only crack a mild joke about “dick” or “pussy” so many times. It’s not surprising that the closing episode of the first season is “damn,” which by now has fallen completely out of the swear word dominion in terms of getting you in trouble, unless you utter it around any Baptists. Silverman tries with jabs at words like “shit,” sharing how she finds the phrase, “you’re the shit and I’m knee-deep in it,” to be one of the most romantic lines she’s ever heard. 

More intriguing material comes from the experts, like Kory Stamper, Merriam-Webster dictionary consultant who becomes a strong guide through what many of these words actually mean. Some of their origins are quite arcane. “Fuck” has several different origin stories, ranging from medieval myths about kings granting permission to have sex (“Fornication Under Consent of the King”) to the more likely explanation being that it’s rooted in a Dutch term for hard blows. “Dick” actually finds its beginnings in Victorian sexual innuendo involving riding crops. Some episodes struggle just because the information offered is not exactly revelatory. No surprise that “bitch” spawns out of old terms for female dogs, so the comics and experts then talk for 20 minutes (the average running time of each episode) about how “bitch” can be used for feminist empowerment or derogatory insults. “Fuck” is both an insult but a word of defiance, going back to the ‘60s anti-war movement and current anti-racist slogans. The show is much more entertaining when it goes into some detailed history, like “shit” connecting to the rise of more private homes during the Renaissance. This is when going to the bathroom becomes a more private affair and the word gains common use, before inevitably becoming useful in insults too.

“History of Swear Words” does little that is fresh or even risqué. It’s appeal in the advertising is solely based on Nicolas Cage’s continuing reputation as an unpredictable ball of frenzy and whatever hint of danger F bombs still have. But even Cage is very subdued in this show, sometimes even looking very bored. On a purely informational level the series does deliver. You will indeed learn where these words came from in brisk 20 minute sessions. So interest will depend on how invested a viewer is in accumulating the kinds of facts you may randomly share during a road trip or very alcohol-laced parties where the chit-chat goes all over the place. You might find it damn interesting but considering the galaxy of content on Netflix, this one could just prove to be a fucking waste of time. 

History of Swear Words” season one begins streaming Jan. 5 on Netflix.