Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Shit: You’d have to be a fucking dick not to have a damn good time with Nicolas Cage and History Of Swear Words

Illustration for article titled Shit: You’d have to be a fucking dick not to have a damn good time with Nicolas Cage and History Of Swear Words
Photo: Netflix

Fuck, shit, bitch, dick, pussy, damn—these words provide the episode titles and subject matter for Netflix’s History Of Swear Words. Anyone offended by their liberal, un-bleeped use—those inclined to bitch, to be dicks, or to act like total pussies, say—should probably eat shit or perhaps even fuck the fuck off rather than press play. The more enlightened crowd likely won’t give a damn about all the profanity in this breezy, charming, and vaguely educational series, hosted by Nicolas motherfucking Cage.

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Over six bite-sized episodes—each clocks in at just 20 minutes—History aims to be both enlightening and entertaining, and largely succeeds on both fronts. It pairs color commentary from a solid slate of comedians and actors with unstuffy lessons from a game gang of academics: No one here takes the series’ mission too seriously, but it’s presented as more than just a vehicle for dick jokes. (Those are covered in episode three, “Dick,” or as Netflix has it, “D**k.”)

The star on the more learned side is Word By Word author Kory Stamper, a lexicographer who, it must be noted, starred in the A.V. Club video series Pop Lexicon, where she explained slightly more nuanced coinages than the ones in this series, including “asshat.” Stamper’s bona fides (huh-huh) also include a stint at Merriam-Webster, where she updated the woefully incomplete definition of the word “bitch.” Her delight in the words themselves and their sometimes-murky etymologies strikes exactly the right tone between funny and factual.

The celebrity panelists—differentiated by a common purple background, whereas the academics are filmed in real locations—have plenty of fun, too: They’re given a chance to react to historical swearing facts right alongside viewers, and their extemporaneous thoughts on old-timey swears like “By God’s Bones!” are a hoot. And the cast is solid: Sarah Silverman tells the story about how she learned at a Spencer Gifts store—because of course she did—the more common current usage of the word “pussy,” Joel Kim Booster reveals his propensity for dick pics, Nikki Glaser enjoys swearing so much it’s almost contagious, and The Wire’s Isiah Whitlock Jr. offers up his longest “shiiiiiiiiiit” ever.

And then there’s Cage, dressed in a natty suit and hanging out on a set that’s part man cave, part library, and acting thoroughly, appropriately silly. He’s the fun but unnecessary glue that ties each episode together, offering readings of decent jokes about the swears and injecting a medium-intensity version of his madcap persona into each. It’s hard to imagine that he spent more than a few hours total working on History Of Swear Words, which isn’t necessarily a knock—just a warning not to expect Cage at the front and center of this large ensemble.

And what might you actually learn from this History? About what you’d expect. “Fuck” does not actually mean “fornication under consent of the king,” but rather more likely comes from a word that initially meant “hit” or “strike.” Last names once included “fucker.” Your body produces adrenaline when you swear, and you can resist pain more easily while cursing. A vagina was once called a “Cecile Bumtrinket,” a euphemism that seems ripe for reappraisal.

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There is also an interesting historical through-line for each of the six words explored here, and that’s the recent changes in usage, often as an act of reclamation. “Pussy” has apparently fallen out of favor not because it’s sexual, but because it posits that a woman’s genitals are synonymous with weakness. Silverman notes that scrotums are in fact the genitalia that get so scared of the cold they need to shrink up into the body to keep warm, so she suggests “ball sacks” as a pejorative for weak and wimpy. “Bitch,” when used by the right person to the right person in the right context, can now be a high compliment. And the experts agree that “shit” barely registers as offensive to anyone these days, and that “fuck” will more than likely follow suit within the next few decades.

The final episode, “Damn,” stresses that point, briefly explaining the history of the Hays Code and Gone With The Wind, when the word was still so controversial that it needed special dispensation (and perhaps a bribe) to even be uttered in a Hollywood movie. Those slightly meatier examinations mean History Of Swear Words runs a little deeper than it might otherwise seem, even as the production vibes echo empty nostalgia fests like I Love The ’80s. Cage tries to tie the smart bits together nicely in the finale, talking about how curse words reflect societal fears, morals, and changes. It doesn’t feel fully earned, but honestly, who gives a shit? The whole thing amounts to a pretty good fucking time.

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