Department of Foot In Mouth

Tony Snow, the new White House press secretary, got off to an inauspicious start at his first press briefing on Tuesday by using the term tarbaby when asked about the government collecting phone records on millions of Americans:

I don’t want to hug the tarbaby of trying to comment on the program, the alleged program, the existence of which I can neither confirm nor deny.

The term has a history of use as a derogatory term for African-Americans. Snow was using the term in its sense meaning an intractable problem that brings discredit to those who attempt to solve it and undoubtedly did not intend any offense, but he did display significant insensitivity in using it.

The term comes from 1881 Joel Chandler Harris story of Uncle Remus, where Brer Fox smears a doll with tar in hopes of using it to ensnare Brer Rabbit:

Brer Fox...got ‘im some tar, en mix it wid some turkentime, en fix up a contrapshun what he call a Tar-Baby.

From this original use, the term was extended to its metaphorical sense of a difficult problem. But by the 1940s, the term was being used as a racial epithet. From Sinclair Lewis’s Kingsblood Royal of 1948:

"I didn’t know she was a tar-baby.""Don’t be so dumb. Can’t you see it by her jaw?"

Sometimes people take offense at words and phrases like nitpicking, picnic, or call a spade a spade, falsely believing there to be a history of racist usage in them. In such cases, people should not be afraid to use the term in question–if someone takes offense, one can simply point out their error. But in this case, the term does have a long history of racist usage. Snow would have been better served choosing a more neutral metaphor like playing in traffic or touch the third rail.

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