Culture

Doin’ the SDP, &c.

The Obamas at the National Portrait Gallery, February 12, 2018 (Jim Bourg / Reuters)
A phrase for a phenom, a hero coach, some local dialect, and more

Not very often do I coin words, phrases, terms. I like those things, but I am not necessarily an inventor of them. But necessity is the mother of invention, and I have found it necessary to describe a phenomenon. To assign a term to this phenomenon.

Say you want to praise Smith, or say something cordial about him, or say something non-hostile about him. You don’t like Smith — and you feel you have to let people know you don’t, before you proceed.

“Believe me, I can’t stand Smith, and I have a long history of antagonism toward him, but I must say that, the other day, he …”

Some weeks ago, I wanted to quote Arlen Specter, the late senator, in a podcast. Once, I was sitting in the Senate gallery, and George Mitchell was really peeved at him. Specter was speaking, making some point, and Mitchell snapped at him, “You already said that!” Specter replied, calmly, “There’s some repetition in this business.”

Specter is a villain, or a goat, on the right. I’m sure that most of my podcast-listeners are on the right, as I am. Did I have to put down Specter — distance myself from him, establish that I was in the tribe — before quoting him?

In a recent column, I said something about Eleanor Roosevelt. Something not political at all, having to do with her name. As I wrote my column, I thought, “Do I have to issue a few of the standard conservative criticisms of Mrs. Roosevelt, before I say what I want to say, just to keep the Right off my back?”

I could have done it. We used to call her “La Boca Grande” (Big Mouth)! She once said she would never cross a picket line, and we proposed a 24-hour picket line around Hyde Park! All that stuff …

But this can be a tiring way to live, you know? There’s a time and place for everything.

Many years ago, there was a terrible opera production in Salzburg — the kind of thing that sometimes goes under the name “Euro-trash.” A fellow critic of mine (an American) said to me, “I hate George W. Bush, but …” — and then he went on to slam the production.

Knowing nothing of my politics, he assumed I hated Bush. And he wanted to let me know that he wasn’t a square or a monster — that he was cool, that he was in the tribe — before slamming the production. That was his laissez-passer. Saying he hated Bush gave him permission to slam the Euro-trashy opera production.

This leads me to Barack Obama. For eight years, and more, I slammed him, as all of us (conservatives) did. Recently, his official portrait was unveiled. Referring to the artist, Kehinde Wiley, he said, “I tried to negotiate less gray hair, and Kehinde’s artistic integrity would not allow him to do what I asked. I tried to negotiate smaller ears — struck out on that as well.”

Now, I find those remarks charming. Do I have to issue a pro forma denunciation of Obama before saying so? I hate to think that I do, or that anyone does. It should be okay, now and then, to be human, in addition to partisan or tribal.

You know what I’m talking about, I trust.

Probably, we all say, “I take a backseat to none in my disdain for Smith, but …,” or, “Don’t get me wrong, I have no use for Jones, but …” Sometimes this may be right and proper. But I for one have resolved to do it less.

And what is “it”? What do we call this phenomenon? I think of it as the self-protective denigratory prelude, or SDP. You think you have to knock someone, before saying something non-knocking, in order to protect yourself.

Will it catch on, this term “SDP”? Maybe only in my mind. But still …

• I have a new hero, sort of, namely Ed Cooley, the coach of the Providence College basketball team.

“Cooley ripped his pants in the back in the second half of the game, and was forced to wear a Gatorade sweat towel around his waist for the rest of the contest.”

(Full article, here — and the pictures are the prize.)

“When I sat down, I felt a great breeze in the crack,” said Coach Cooley. Is that TMI? Is there any relation between TMI and SDP? (No.)

• Let’s have a little language — or a little more language, I should say, beyond the self-protective denigratory prelude (which, I admit, does not necessarily trip off the lips, though, with practice, who knows?).

The other day, I wrote that we Michiganders are not apt to say we “work at Ford.” We say, “I work at Ford’s,” or, even better, “out to Ford’s.” A reader writes, “I come from Pittsfield, Mass., which was a big General Electric town, and people wouldn’t say they worked ‘at GE.’ Instead, you worked ‘at the GE.’”

Another reader:

My favorite aunt lives in Albuquerque, N.M. Like her, many in my family were born in Pueblo, Colo. Aunt Marty grew up there, and I’m sure she learned a favorite phrase there in her youth.

As a “good Presbyterian,” she could not bring herself to swear using the word “hell.” I will always remember her for using the phrase “What the Sam Hill [is going on in here, etc.]?”

You knew she was mad, she just wasn’t about to swear about it.

My mother — my very own mother — was in the store the other day, while vacationing in Florida. “In the aisle, a really old guy was hollering, ‘Where’s the Drano?’” (This is her in an e-mail.) “He turned to me. I said I had never been in this store but was sure we could find it. We did, and he turned to me and gratefully said, ‘I’ll dance at your next wedding!’” The fellow was from Ohio.

• Now, a little music, though not wedding music. For my “New York Chronicle,” in the March New Criterion, go here. I discuss Tosca, Wagner, Bruckner, Denis Matsuev, Marilyn Horne, and other good stuff (and less good stuff).

In one of my Jaywalking podcasts, I played a James Taylor song, “Mexico.” A reader — a mother — writes,

You brought back a very pleasant memory for me. The James Taylor song you played was one of our middle son’s favorites when he was about three years old. (He’s now a 20-year-old college junior.) He knew only the “oh, Mexico” refrain and would sit in his car seat and sing it over and over and over. You’d think that might be annoying, but it was delightful. He was just being happy and doing his best to sing his favorite song. I love that about small children, their joy in things that seem small and simple to us. Songs like that help bottle those moments for us.

• Back to language. On Twitter last weekend, I posted a picture of a car sitting in front of my building. It was a huge, huge, long, long Buick LeSabre — an old “woodie,” i.e., a wood-paneled station wagon. You need a really wide-angle lens to snap that baby.

Hang on, I’ll get some knowledgeable person to publish it right here:

Cool. It’s not like I could have done it. Anyway, on Twitter, Will Collier responded, “Now that there is a serious Grocery Getter, as we used to say down South.”

See you soon, Impromptus-ites. Thanks.

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