Wednesday, March 19, 2008

My Compliments

A female co-worker of mine has embraced her Judaism later in life. As a bonus, she's found that it's brought her much closer to her extended family. Female cousins are like "girlfriends" now and she's got family/social engagements coming out her ears, including invitations to two Passovers. One of these invitations was from a newly girlfriendy cousin, who said: "We want you to come. We all think you're so interesting..." She's telling me this, laughing, and fumbling to put into words just why this remark of her cousin was so...

"Yes, it was a nonpliment," I said cooly from behind my desk, my spindly fingers forming a steeple as I gently pressed fingertips to fingertips.

"What's a nonpliment?" She asked, intrigued, a hint of recognition already dawning on her face like a sunrise over the African Sahara.

"It's a statement that seems like a compliment at first, but upon further reflection actually says nothing at all. It's non-content; neither a compliment nor a bompliment."

At this her expression exploded in understanding. "Yes! That's what it was. That's exactly what it was. A nonpliment. Ha ha. But – what was that last part you said? A bomb-pliment? I've never heard of such a thing."

I nodded, chuckled, and smiled in calm condescension, always happy to dispense nuggets of esoteric wisdom I've gathered in my broadly lived life.

"A bompliment is just what it sounds like. Like the nonpliment, it too at first seems to be a compliment. Only, instead of having no negative or positive content of any sort, it's really a thinly disguised dis. A bomb has been dropped, so to speak, which only explodes in afterthought. Hence the name, bompliment."

"Oh, I think I understand. Like the time that Jane Johnsonson in legal said to me, 'You know, I've never thought much of your looks, but you look awesome today?'"

"Well, not quite." I said, pleased to make the distinction. "What Ms. Johnsonson said was actually a fourth variety of compliment. It contained both an outright dis and a legitimate compliment in one. There's no catchy name for it - that I know of, anyway - but I'd be happy to look into this matter further. However, on further thought, I suppose the tone she encased it in probably seemed complimentary on the surface and so, because it sheathed a daggardly dig, might possibly qualify as a bompliment proper."

On and on the discussion went, in waves of semantic glee.


As far as I know, the phrase "nonpliment" originated in my band. It was derived from "bompliment," which had been floating around the backwaters of the zeitgeist for years (Rodrigo imported it into Judah Johnson as he had similarly smuggled in so many things; Cuban cigars, exotic plants, rare diseases). But we needed a new term for a new breed of comment that is particular to band life.

The scenario is this: you're on tour, headlining another three-band bill with two locals in an endless string of three-band bills with two locals. It's not that you're not supportive of local music. It's not that you don't like other bands or aren't interested in discovering new groups. It's that you're tired and fried, have been in a dark, smoky bar every night for weeks in a row, and so sometimes you sit out the opening acts and call your girlfriend. Or go read a book in the nearest coffee shop before your set. The only downside to this is the awkward moment when you're loading your gear on stage and the band before you is coming off. What do you say? You didn't actually see their performance. Or, worse, you did and you honestly didn't like it. You could try not saying anything at all, but inevitably some kind of eye contact is made as that band member, high on post-show adrenaline, looks straight at you craving something, anything in the way of validation.

"You, uh... you guys really looked like you were having fun up there." This was actually said by our drummer, Charlie, to someone in another band during one of these situations. When the rest of us heard about it later we were so disgusted (yet entertained) that we made him promise to never say that to another person again. But what kind of comment was it, we asked? It wasn't a bompliment. A bompliment would have been: "Wow. Your show really reminded me why I like punk rock - you don't even have to know how to play your instrument to do it."

The genius of Charlie's comment was how completely non-commital it was. We christened it a nonpliment.

The greatest nonpliment of all time was given not by my band, but to my band, during a tour we did a few years ago. We were actually the openers in this instance, and the headliner was a solo act who left much to be desired in the way of good. "Let's give it up for Judah Johnson," he said between songs. "They're really a band of musicians."

Though all of us had been slobbering with boredom, we perked up with admiration for the brilliant nonpliment he had just thrown our way. A band of musicians. Indeed.

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