Niggardly Tar Babies and Other Troublesome Words

19 May 2006

Note: I’m keeping this post for historical reasons, but in 2022, I now think it’s just fine to retire some words because of their associations or because they are easily confused with other words; there are plenty more where those came from, and we can even construct new ones.

So, Tony Snow is in trouble for using the term “tar baby,” as in, when asked to comment on the NSA surveillance program, “I don’t want to hug the tar baby.” And people are accusing him of using a racial slur.

“Tar baby” has come to us from the Br’er Rabbit story, where it is used to indicate a human figure made of tar, very sticky, which was used to trap Br’er Rabbit. This is the usage that Snow was referring to — he didn’t want to get stuck in that political trap. A more cynical interpretation is that he chose to use some words that would distract the media from the NSA surveillance program.

The term has ALSO come to serve as a racial slur for blacks, and calling someone of color a “tar baby” would certainly be very offensive. But in this case Snow was not referring to a person at all, so I have to defend him — his comment was not actually racist. I am not one to defend this administration or anyone who speaks for them, but I have to sympathize with Snow — if he has to remove that phrase from his repertoire, he is impoverishing his idiom.

Trying to ban every figure of speech or phrase that comes with a politically incorrect overtone is madness. We would get rid of “rule of thumb.” We would get rid of “niggardly.” You may remember the tempest over that word. People, in some cases well-informed and well-educated people, seem to think the word “niggardly” has something to do with the word “nigger.” It doesn’t; different etymology, different meaning. It just sounds similar. Jumping up and down because someone uses “niggardly” to mean “stingy” just displays ignorance of the language.

Note to activist: save your outrage for something that actually makes sense! And learn to speak idiomatic English. It’s an incredibly rich and allusive language, dickweeds!

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