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Biden ad lib during the State of the Union has left people scratching their heads


At a particularly contentious moment in his State of the Union address, President Biden ad-libbed something that had a lot of people scratching their heads.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: As my football coach used to say, lots of luck in your senior year.

MARTÍNEZ: But what does that even mean? Here's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: It turns out this phrase isn't a new one for Biden. Back in the 1990s, he used to tell the story of meeting Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader responsible for ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.


BIDEN: He asked me what I thought of him, and I told him then I thought he was a damn war criminal and should be tried as such. He looked at me like I said, lots of luck in your senior year. Did not faze him a bit.

KEITH: And there was the 1997 Senate floor speech about a fundraising meeting, where Biden gave an answer that the donors didn't want to hear.


BIDEN: Talked about a few things. Said, Joe, lots of luck in your senior year, you know? And I got up and left. I didn't raise any money.

KEITH: Most recently, though, the day after the midterms, Biden was asked about congressional Republicans investigating his family.


BIDEN: Lots of luck in your senior year, as my coach used to say.

KEITH: But if you've never heard this phrase before, you're not alone. Anatoly Liberman is a linguist at the University of Minnesota and author of the book "Take My Word For It: A Dictionary Of English Idioms." This one isn't in his book.

ANATOLY LIBERMAN: It is not listed even in the most detailed database of formulas, wishes and sayings.

KEITH: He says there are a lot of idioms like this - only known in one region or even in one family.

BOB MARKEL: I went to high school with Joe Biden.

KEITH: Bob Markel played sports with Biden. He went on to be elected mayor of Springfield, Mass., and credits Biden with helping his campaign. And when Markel was watching the State of the Union, that phrase stood out.

MARKEL: I had the same reaction, I guess, as other people. You know, where did that come from?

KEITH: Markel figures Biden picked it up in college. NPR asked the White House which coach used the saying and what it means and didn't get an answer. But Markel's guess is as good as any.

MARKEL: It's not exactly an insult, but it's a gentle rebuke, put it that way. Good luck in your senior year, if you get there, in other words. I think that's basically what he's saying.

KEITH: Robin Lakoff noticed the phrase, too. She's a professor emerita of linguistics at UC Berkeley. She says it reminds her of what people would write in someone's yearbook. But when Biden says it, there's a bite and an element of sarcasm.

ROBIN LAKOFF: It couldn't be then turned back against him by the Republicans. Like, Marjorie Taylor Greene, just for instance, couldn't say, you know what he called me? He called me good luck in your senior year.

KEITH: But now that Biden has used the phrase on the biggest of national stages, it's possible it could stick, like past presidential rhetoric that has become part of the American lexicon - from morning in America to lots of luck in your senior year.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRIDENT MINK'S "PERSPECTIVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.