Let Nicolas Cage Be Your Crazy Curse-Word Guide
The incomparable actor serves as both MC and main attraction of the new Netflix docuseries “History of Swear Words” exploring, well, the history of swear words.
Nicolas Cage can make anything cool, and that certainly applies to cursing, as confirmed by Netflix’s History of Swear Words (debuting Jan. 5), in which the Oscar-winning superstar plays host to an inquiry into our most beloved profane utterances. Cage’s participation is the highlight of executive producers Brien Meagher and Rhett Bachner’s comedic look at taboo English-language terms, lending it just the right amount of educational seriousness and tongue-in-cheek humor. Charismatically demonstrating naughty words’ vitality and power, and flashing enough bravado to show that he’s also in on the proceedings’ fundamental joke, he’s the main fucking reason to watch this goddamn entertaining six-episode affair.
Those easily offended by such vocabulary will definitely want to avoid this lesson on the tradition and different meanings of expletives, which focuses each of its 20-minute installments on a single forbidden expression. Naturally, the word “fuck” is the first to be addressed, with Cage kicking the series off by reciting numerous famous movie lines that take full advantage of that infamously frowned-upon four-letter word. Boasting a nicely trimmed beard and a designer suit, and situated in a drawing room decorated with a grand fireplace, built-in bookshelves, and a leather armchair sandwiched between a stack of old volumes and a fully stocked drink cart, Cage opines, “An actor’s greatest tool is their imagination. But swearing is definitely up there. With swear words, we can cut, soothe, delight, frighten, insult, and seduce. Of all the swear words in the English language, none is as malleable as ‘fuck.’”
With its lighthearted tone, generated by its witty commentary and diversely animated sequences, title cards, and graphical timelines, History of Swear Words is energized by Cage’s self-consciously erudite schtick but is largely dominated by talking-head remarks from a collection of comedians—including Sarah Silverman, Nick Offerman, Nikki Glaser, London Hughes, Jim Jeffries, and Zainab Johnson—who are more than slightly familiar with this subject matter. With a jokiness befitting the endeavor, they do their best to dissect the many ways in which “fuck,” “shit,” “bitch,” “pussy,” “dick,” and “damn” are used in casual conversation, in mixed company, in their own routines, and by the culture at large. They’re a generally agreeable group, and capable of succinctly pinpointing how the meaning of each of these words changes depending on the context of their usage.
Of course, that’s not exactly a stunning revelation; the idea that “bitch” can be a term of endearment, and that “shit” can be turned into a positive label by prefacing it with “the,” are the sorts of obvious and functional points sometimes made by this non-fiction effort’s funny people. More constructive scholastic input is provided by lexicographer Kory Stamper, cognitive scientist Benjamin Bergen, and author Melissa Mohr, a trio of experts enlisted to provide insight into curses’ origins and transformations over the centuries. Anyone curious about how “bitch” went from referring to a female dog to a loud, opinionated, uncontrollable woman, or why “damn” has transitioned from a blasphemous (literal) curse to an almost universally accepted and shrugged-at exclamation, will glean something from Meagher and Bachner’s series, which strikes a nice balance between goofily celebrating coarse jargon and examining its ancient roots.
History of Swear Words’ most intriguing episodes concern “bitch” and “pussy,” because they dig into the gender-defaming nature of those slurs. Put simply, calling someone either of those things in a derogatory manner is to equate negative attributes (i.e. forcefulness, or weakness) with femininity. Impudently tackling such issues is one of the show’s strong suits, although one wishes that talk about modern instances of slur-reclamation—such as Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP,” which casts “pussy” as a source of strength and independence—weren’t treated in such a cursory fashion. The series’ interest in its topics’ thornier complications often outpaces the quality of its superficial investigations.
Still, there are a considerable number of fascinating factoids sprinkled throughout this Drunk History-esque venture, such as Richard Nixon’s considerable role in turning the nickname Dick into a synonym for an awful man, the fact that swearing apparently increases one’s fortitude (as evidenced by a hand-in-an-ice-bucket experiment), and the means by which wordplay helped “pussy” evolve from being a term for a cat, to a wife, to the female genitalia. That a woman’s private parts were also once referred to as her “Cecily Bumtrinket”—Cecily being a woman’s name, and “bumtrinket” implying that the vagina was, per Jeffries, “a hood ornament to the asshole”—is also of some minor amusing interest, if not exactly the sort of nugget of wisdom that you’ll be able to utilize in everyday polite conversation.
Class and race-based analyses of curses are also intermittently present throughout. Yet at heart, History of Swear Words is the sort of goofy lark meant to be binged in one sitting on a lazy Saturday afternoon. In that regard, its shrewdest move is to let Cage indulge in droll absurdity—like when, with regard to the word “shit,” he wonders, “What are the origins of caca and doo-doo’s rebellious older brother?” Or when he begins the episode on “damn” by reciting some of the outrageously bad alternate phrases that were considered for Clark Gable’s legendary closing line in Gone in the Wind (all of them penned so the film would comply with the stringent Hays Code). In those moments, or when speakers make fun of “minced oaths”—i.e. euphemisms for vulgarisms, such as “goshdarnit” and “fudge”—the show throws into sharp relief the idiocy of being deeply, morally offended by swearing.
Cage is both the MC and the main attraction here, and he handles his duties with aplomb, highlighting these words’ ridiculousness and potent effectiveness at conveying base sentiments. Alongside copious clips from famous movies, he demonstrates how swearing is a vehicle for release, for feeling good, for hilarity, and for reprimanding, offending, and denigrating. “Swear words will only be useful for as long as we have hearts, minds, and assholes,” he remarks at the end of the finale—meaning that, like the peerless actor himself, their true value is incalculable, and everlasting.