Language in Veep

HBO has a free online screening of the first episode of the new comedy Veep starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It has the same pacing, cross-talk, multiple storylines, and political infighting of The West Wing except it is played strictly for laughs. Some have suggested that it may even be a more accurate portrayal of life in the executive branch of the government than its more serious predecessor, and I can believe that since the principals in Veep are quite ambitious, cynical, and manipulative. There are no high-minded moralists in this crowd.

The first episode dealt with the staff dealing with one problem after another, all of them trivial in my eyes, but the kind of thing that people in those positions obsess over, such as a poorly worded tweet by an underling, a misguided attempt at humor using the word ‘retard’ that blows up in their faces, a condolence card to a dead senator’s widow that was signed by a staffer who forgot to sign the vice-president’s name and put her own, and so on.

The show was quite funny but what struck me was that all the characters, the vice president, senators, staffers, men, women, all swore like the proverbial drunken sailor. Staffers spoke like that when talking to the vice president and she replied in kind. It made me wonder if people in those positions actually did that. The West Wing, being on broadcast TV, could not have swearing but HBO can, but I was not sure if they were accurately portraying the way people speak or merely using their extra freedom to take some license.

I have worked in universities and research laboratories my entire life and nowhere have I found people who pepper their everyday speech with such strong language. I had assumed that it would also be rare in white collar environments, especially at very high levels of government.

But maybe I’m wrong.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    My experience in that kind of thing is that an entire workplace will often take its tone from whoever is at the top. I’ll bet everybody in the LBJ , White House swore a lot, for instance, and of course there’s a lot on the Nixon tapes.

  2. slc1 says

    One of the things that struck me as I downloaded movies from the Internet was the change in allowable language as one progressed from the 1940s and 1950s through the 1960s and beyond. In the earlier era, not a swear word was to be heard. However, as the censorship regime faded, one began to hear more such language. What was particularly notable was the use of such language by female actors who became absolutely potty mouthed (a perfect example, Jamie Lee Curtis). In particular, the use of the f word became almost de regeur. Take the Quentin Tarantino directed 1992 flic Reservoir Dogs. It seemed that there was hardly a sentence that didn’t include the f word.

  3. 'Tis Himself says

    I spent almost 20 years working in the Treasury Department. I have been sworn at by senior civil servants, political appointees, and cabinet secretaries and I have sworn at them in turn. The foulest mouth I encountered at Treasury belonged to Donald Regan, who went from being Secretary of the Treasury to being Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff. Regan was famous for saying “fuck you and the horse you rode in on.” This has been sanitized by several of his admirers who pretend he only said the bit about the horse. I know from personal experience that he liked to use the entire phrase.

  4. TGAP Dad says

    Rumor has it that Obama’s former chief of staff, now Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel was notorious for his foul language. I remember Obama joking about it at the WH correspondent’s dinner.

  5. says

    Shalom Hamilton,

    I really shouldn’t check, but I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t and I apologize in advance if I’m off-base, but you know that this is an Onion parody, right?



  6. Hamilton Jacobi says

    Well, I have heard that the Onion runs a few April Fool’s jokes now and then. But the date isn’t right for that, and anyway this article looks totally legit.

  7. says

    I’ve known individuals who pepper their everyday speech with swearing, and I know we often pick up verbal cues from our colleagues, but I’ve never worked in a group where regular swearing was the norm for all.

    My views on swearing have evolved over the years. I was raised to think it primarily a matter of etiquette, that we should watch our language in order to not make others uncomfortable, or to reserve it for scenarios in which it would not raise eyebrows.

    These days I tend to agree with Steven Pinker and Stephen Fry that swear words play a special role in our vocabularies. As I recall from lectures related to Pinker’s “The Stuff of Thought : Language as a Window Into Human Nature” most languages include swear words and these typically relate to taboo’s pertinent to that society’s culture.

    Given the taboo nature of such words, they provide a certain shock value that makes them powerfully emphatic when used judiciously. If I rarely swear, and you hear me shout out an expletive, you are bound to take note and wonder what horrible thing has just happened–perhaps I’ve injured myself or suffered a computer crash or other frustration.

    However if I regularly sprinkle my conversation with such words, they lose their power. When I then stub my toe and swear, you won’t look up (unless I’m particularly loud about it) because there is nothing different in my language to indicate that something has gone awry.

    It reminds me a bit of the boy who cried wolf. Looking at it from this point of view I wonder what happens linguistically when/if swear words become the norm. How can Quentin Tarantino shock us if swearing is the commonplace? Do we develop a new set of taboo words to make up for the old ones going mainstream?

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