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Biden had a sick burn in his State of the Union speech. 'Lots of luck' explaining it

President Biden delivers the State of the Union address on Feb. 7.
Getty Images
President Biden delivers the State of the Union address on Feb. 7.

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

He was taunting Republicans who want to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes the politically popular measure to cap drug prices for seniors.

"As my football coach used to say, 'Lots of luck in your senior year,'" Biden said with a chuckle and a wry smile.

But what does that even mean?

Biden has been saying this for at least 25 years

It turns out this phrase has long been part of Biden's folksy informal lexicon. Back in the 1990s, he used to tell the story of meeting Slobodan Milošević, the Serbian leader responsible for ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.

"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," Biden said in a speech on the Senate floor. "He looked at me like I said, 'Lots of luck in your senior year.' Did not faze him a bit."

Biden used the phrase again in a 1997 Senate speech, recounting a fundraising meeting where he gave an answer that his donors didn't want to hear. A decade later, when asked in a television interview about former President Donald Trump's plans to repeal Obamacare, Biden's response was to wish him lots of luck in his senior year.

Most recently, though, the day after the midterm elections in November when Republicans won control of the House of Representatives, Biden was asked about impending investigations into his family. His response?

"Lots of luck in your senior year, as my coach used to say," Biden said, going on to explain that he thinks the American people would rather see politicians addressing their daily concerns, like inflation.

The phrase "Lots of luck in your senior year" was not in the prepared remarks for President Biden's State of the Union address.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
Getty Images
The phrase "Lots of luck in your senior year" was not in the prepared remarks for President Biden's State of the Union address.

Even linguists were puzzled by the phrase

Now, 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.

"It is not listed even in the most detailed database of formulas, wishes and sayings," Liberman told NPR.

But, that isn't necessarily surprising, he said. There are a lot of idioms like this, only known in one region, one family or perhaps one coach's sphere of influence.

Bob Markel played sports with Biden in high school and has been exposed to a lifetime of Bidenisms. 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 address, that phrase caught his ear.

"I had the same reaction, I guess, as other people," said Markel. "Where did that come from?"

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.

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

It's an expression of skepticism, with a bit of a taunt built in.

Robin Lakoff, a professor emerita of linguistics at UC Berkeley, says it reminds her of what people would write in someone's yearbook if they didn't really have anything to say — or if they had a lot to say, but it wouldn't be nice.

When Biden says it, there's a bite, an edge of sarcasm. As insults go, it has an advantage, said Lakoff.

"It couldn't be then turned back against him by the Republicans," said Lakoff.

NPR's Devin Speak contributed to this story.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.