Of the many excellent things about The Sopranos, the HBO TV series that blends mob brutality with suburban anomie, perhaps the most lasting will be a phrase introduced in Episode 34: "He disrespected the Bing." The moment Chatterbox heard it, he felt certain he was witnessing the birth of a powerful new cliché. And, indeed, several of Chatterbox's friends report that since the program aired a week ago last Sunday, they have been exploring the phrase's possibilities: "You disrespected the Bing." "I disrespected the Bing." "That's disrespecting the Bing." And so on. A scan of news databases and Web search engines reveals that the conceit has not yet broken out--the only out-of-context reference Chatterbox could find was by sportswriter Ray Ratto in the April 25 San Francisco Chronicle:
The small-time fetish that was the Giants' record of consecutive sellouts is now over, as 40,723 people and 336 chairs, most of them in the upper deck, saw the wonderment of the Giants being dope-slapped 9-5 by the Cincinnati Reds.... Three hundred thirty-six empty seats is hardly "disrespectingthe Bing," as New Jersey baseball fans like to say. [Explanatory note: The Sopranos is set in New Jersey.] In fact, it actually creates the illusion that you, the average mope, can, on a whim, grab your cubicle mate after an enervating morning connecting dots and coms and walk down to the ballpark, buy two and settle in for a nice afternoon of ball, beer and ATM withdrawals.
Proving once again that, for better or worse, the sports section is the cutting edge of American lexicology.
What does it mean to disrespect the Bing? The first thing you have to know is that Tony Soprano conducts his business from the "Bada Bing!," a strip joint that doubles as a sort of Mafia clubhouse. In Episode 32, one of the strippers, an emotionally needy girl named Tracee, got into an argument with her boyfriend, Ralphie Cifaretto, who happens to be this season's hothead-who's-practically-begging-to-get-whacked. She slapped him, and he lost it (he was coked up at the time) and beat her to death with his fists. Which was rendered even more horrifying by the fact that Tracee was carrying Ralphie's child. This all happened in the parking lot behind the Bing. Tony, who harbored paternal feelings toward Tracee that are socially unacceptable within the context of the mob, papered over his rage by saying to Ralphie, "You disrespect this place" and slugging him, which is also unacceptable because Ralphie is a "made man" and a good earner. Two episodes later, Tony grudgingly promoted Ralphie to mob captain on condition that Ralphie apologize. But since Ralphie couldn't apologize for killing a stripper (partly out of pride and partly because it would violate mob etiquette to acknowledge a stripper's humanity), he fumbled around and finally settled on the brilliantly evasive and economical, "I disrespected the Bing."
The precise meaning of the phrase has yet to be negotiated through everyday use, but Chatterbox will venture that when you say you disrespected the Bing, you are pleading guilty to the lesser offense. It's a bit like a pseudoapology of the sort the United States ended up proffering to China in order to get back the crew of the surveillance plane and of the sort journalists routinely hand out to people who are unjustifiably enraged by something they've written. But there's a crucial difference: Whereas the pseudoapology is served up to avoid giving in to an unreasonable demand, the "I disrespected the Bing" gambit is served up to avoid pleading guilty to committing a much larger and very real moral transgression. If I borrow your car and then total it, I disrespect the Bing if all I say afterwards is that I'm sorry I didn't get it back to you as quickly as I'd promised. If I spray-paint an obscenity on the wall of a public school, I disrespect the Bing if I apologize for misspelling it. And so on. As you can see, the phrase is much subtler than The Godfather's signature mob phrase, "give him an offer he can't refuse." It is also more nihilistic. It suggests that we live in a world where you can get away with a big wrong if you remember to apologize for all the trivial ones.
[Update, April 26: Reader Frankie Petrosino points out that an article about Sean "Puffy" Combs, a.ka. P. Diddy, in the April 25 Baltimore City Paper is headlined, "Disrespecting the Bling."]