“An actor’s greatest tool is his imagination,” Nicolas Cage, at his Cagiest, informs us from an upscale living room set at the start of Netflix’s History of Swear Words. “But swearing is definitely up there.”
The key to any good, or entertainingly terrible, Cage movie is the moment where he loses his shit – but now the Oscar-winning actor is telling us the etymology of the word as he hosts a journey through “the history, evolution and cultural impact” of swear words. In 2021, arguably the average human has screamed enough expletives within five minutes of logging on to Twitter to exceed the word count of War and Peace, while the power of lalochezia – using profanity to relieve stress – has never felt more relevant.
As he goes from Face/Off to Fuck/Off, there’s a curiosity in seeing Cage do something you might usually find buried on daytime E4. His top-and-tail presenting and narration is a double-edged sword: he’s the best thing about the series, knowingly (and gamely) trading on his pop culture status, swirling expletives around his mouth like a fine wine, but it also adds more importance, heft and expectation than the show deserves.
Each of the six 20-minute episodes focuses on a single profanity – Fuck, Shit, Bitch, Dick, Pussy and Damn (which, when written down, sound like a very different version of Snow White’s dwarves) – are too threadbare to be particularly informative, yet too long for the novelty of having comedians like Sarah Silverman, London Hughes and Nikki Glaser crack jokes about swear words not to wear thin.
History of Swear Words doesn’t know what it wants to be, each episode flipping between entertainment and education, but doing neither particularly well. Adopting a scattershot approach, the instalment dedicated to ‘Shit’ – appropriately episode number two in the series – pinballs from the word’s Ango-Saxon beginnings to a skit involving The Wire’s Isiah Whitlock Jr attempting the world’s longest ‘Sheeeeeeeeiiiit!’ (the profane catchphrase with which he made his name). This bizarre sequence is followed up with some breezy scientific experiments into the pain-relieving effects of swearing, and the 1985 Parents Music Resource Center hearings which resulted in Parental Advisory stickers being slapped on music.
Elsewhere, lexicographers and authors provide some meat on the bones, but some of History of Swear Words‘ contributions are plain, stating-the-obvious banal. Even the most isolated tribes in the rainforest probably don’t need comedian and actor Joel Kim Booster to tell them that some gay men refer to each affectionally as bitches, stripping the word of its misogynistic meaning – and surface-level gender-essentialism conversations about the word bitch or pussy come on like a sixth-form sociology seminar.
Worse, subjects are introduced for their comedic potential – dick pics, nicknames for dicks – then miss the target, feeling weirdly inert as a custard pie not hitting a clown’s face. None of the guys have, or make up, any amusing pet terms for their junk – nobody calls their balls, say, “Wham!” because one’s bigger than the other, and they’re quite hairy, or their wang The Brian Jonestown Massacre because, although it’s largely ignored by the wider public, it still gets rave reviews.
Although dick-catching UK comedian London Hughes appears, it’s skewed towards US audiences, which means we’re denied, say, some contributors who are Scottish, a nationality who could be called the SAS Special Elite Forces of Swearing (they have more inventive ways of employing the word cunt than inuits have for snow). Like Charlie Brooker’s disappointing Death to 2020, it feels better suited to a UK broadcaster, where audiences aren’t offended so easily.
History Of Swear Words adequately tells us the history of the word fuck but doesn’t give us a reason to give one. Appropriately for a program about expletives, you can sum it up perfectly – shit.