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I came across the phrase “pillow-plumping romance with the press” in Maureen Dowd’s article titled “Liability Index” in New York Times August 11 issue. It reads:

The president survived a “raised by wolves” upbringing, as Michelle has called it. He retained the monastic skills that sustained him through the solitude of his years in New York. His “winning smile,” as Jonathan Alter wrote in “The Promise,” “obscured a layer of self-protective ice.” His staffers respect him, but he doesn’t inspire the kind of adoration that the Bush presidents got. And the pillow-plumping romance with the press is over.

All three online dictionaries of Cambridge, Oxford, and Merriam-Webster I use to consult with carry pillow talk, but none of them registers pillow-plumping.

OALD simply defines plump “having a soft, round body” as adjective, and “to make sth larger, softer and rounder” as transitive verb.

I assume pillow-plumping romance means “close and friendly relationship” with press from the context, but am not sure.

What does pillow-plumping mean? Is it very popular word?

Can I say “Sonny’s pillow-plumping romance with Hollywood is over”, or “Tom had a pillow-plumping romance (or relationship) with the shop clerk.”?

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I would only add that "pillow plumping" is something a couple might do after sex so that they could more easily put the pillows under their chins and thus facilitate an intimate conversation, face to face. It describes a level of infatuation common to early-stage romances. –  Robusto Aug 12 '12 at 12:12
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3 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

It's nowhere near a "standard idiom", so strictly thinking I think this question might be off-topic (it's effectively literary criticism/interpretation).

Obama's romance is just an alternative to honeymoon [with the press] - a common metaphor attaching to public figures newly risen to the attention of the media.

Literally, pillow-plumping is just beating and fluffing up a pillow to make it more comfortable. When conjoined with the metaphoric press romance, it emphasises how the press have made his early years as president comfortable/easy. Ensuring her man has a nice soft place (breast, pillow) to lay his head is something an adoring lover might do in the first flush of new romance.

This "soft pillow" metaphor harks back to Obama's "monastic skills" as mentioned earlier in the passage. By cliched convention (and to some extent, historical fact), monks live ascetic/abstinent existences, in which context beds of nails, and hard stone pillows, are common images.

TL;DR: pillow-plumping here means indulgent and comforting.

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I imagined ‘close and friendly relationship of Obama with the press’ by the phrase, ‘pillow-plumping romance with the press,’ which I don’t think is too far from your definition, ‘the President’s honeymoon’ with the press. It isn’t difficult to infer that way from the context. But it’s hard for foreign English learners to guess offhand what ‘pillow-plumping romance’ is when shown alone, I mean without the context, particularly when no dictionary carries this word. –  Yoichi Oishi Aug 12 '12 at 5:09
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@Yoichi Oishi: As I write, David's answer has as many upvotes as mine, but I don't think there's even the slightest allusion to romantic novels being read in bed in your extract. I don't know what percentage of voters are native speakers, but I doubt it makes much difference anyway. With Dowd's obscure "metaphoric coinages", not everyone understands exactly what she's getting at - and sometimes different alternatives are possible, whether or not she intends them. I expect I've said before that you probably shouldn't attempt to copy her somewhat quirky style. –  FumbleFingers Aug 12 '12 at 11:55
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I can't emphasize enough the veracity of FumbleFingers answer, and especially the comment he made subsequently. Sorry, I'm trying to say HE IS CORRECT The style of prose used by Dowd is not standard usage, by which I mean this: She chose to use a style of writing that is atypical for journalism and political reporting. It isn't wrong or bad. Yoichi, to help clarify my point, I would compare this to an earlier question you asked, regarding another U.S. political candidate. –  Feral Oink Aug 12 '12 at 13:31
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Yes, I agree. There is a risk in using this "pseudo-erudite", or over-wrought style, even for those for whom English is a first (or only) language. There is a good chance of being perceived as silly, and distinctly un-funny. I know this to be true, because I indulge in such style of writing myself sometimes. That is why I hesitate to recommend emulating Dowd's style. If a native speaker who has an idiomatic comprehension of a language can't carry this off consistently, not even Dowd is successful every time, then it is inadvisable for others to do so, and expect a positive outcome. –  Feral Oink Aug 12 '12 at 14:26
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@Feral: That is exactly the point. Dowd's style may not always work for everyone, and she's obviously a very competent speaker/writer. Not a good "model" for Yoichi, even though for a non-native speaker he is imho unusually good at picking up on the finer points of idiomatic/metaphoric usages in "carefully-written" English (that's why he usually only asks about really obscure ones! :) –  FumbleFingers Aug 12 '12 at 14:37
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My understanding is that this is all about how, when you're reading a really good book in bed, you might thump your pillow to make it fatter, so that you can sit up in bed more comfortably. Thumping your pillow this way is called "plumping", because it makes your pillow plumper. So a "pillow-plumping" romance would be a romance novel that you would read in bed; more particularly, it's a gripping enough book that you would "plump up" your pillow and read it, in preference to switching off the light and going to sleep.

In the case of Obama, it's kind of a metaphor; the American people were eager to read about Obama, and everything he did that was reported favourably by the press. Now, they're not so eager any more - the pillow plumping has finished.

As worded in the Times article, pillow-plumping romance probably refers to the act of pillow plumping – how one lover might plump the pillow for the other, suggesting the great care, deference, attention, and infatuation that often accompany the early stages of a new romantic relationship. In other words, suggesting that the pillow-plumping romance is over is another way of saying that the (metaphorical) honeymoon is over.

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You think romance here means romance novel, like for reading in bed? Maybe it’s that only in a romance do you bother to fluff the pillow for your parter? –  tchrist Aug 12 '12 at 1:40
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I would think that pillow-plumping romance refers to how one lover might plump the pillow for the other, suggesting the great care, deference, attention, and infatuation that often accompany the early stages of a new romantic relationship. In other words, suggesting that the pillow-plumping romance is over is another way of saying that the (metaphorical) honeymoon is over. –  J.R. Aug 12 '12 at 1:52
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@David Wallace.I feel difficulty to interpret ‘the pillow-plumping romance with the press is over’ as ‘the page-turner novel with the press is over,’ as your suggest, because “the pillow-plumping novel’ doesn’t seem to sit well with ‘the press.’ –  Yoichi Oishi Aug 12 '12 at 2:10
    
@J.R. You should make that an answer! It’s very good. –  tchrist Aug 12 '12 at 4:12
    
@J.R. I'm going to delete this answer, because I've had time to think about it some more, and I think I got it a bit wrong (despite the three upvotes). I think FumbleFingers' answer is very good; and that your comment here would make an even better answer. I will leave this answer here for long enough for you to cut and paste your comment into an answer of your own. Once you've done that, I will delete it. –  user16269 Aug 12 '12 at 5:29
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I’ve never heard pillow-plumping before, but it sounds like something they might do for you at a cosy little bed-and-breakfast, fluffing your pillow for you in the evening.

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