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Tony Snow and 'tar baby'

Well, Tony Snow’s off to a great start as press secretary. Remember, he’s the man who educated us on the fact that racism is dead:

“Here’s the unmentionable secret: Racism isn’t that big a deal any more. No sensible person supports it. Nobody of importance preaches it. It’s rapidly becoming an ugly memory.”
— newly minted Bush shill Tony Snow, on an October 2003 edition of Fox News Sunday

I guess that’s why it’s A-OK to use the phrase Tar Baby again. This explains a lot, from today’s press briefing, when he was asked about the NSA and its collecting of phone records:

Having said that, I don’t want to hug the tar baby of trying to comment on the program, the alleged program, the existence of which I can neither confirm nor deny.

And he said it again later:

QUESTION: What are your personal goals? What do you hope to achieve here? Will you continue to televise these briefings? And would you put into English the phrase (OFF-MIKE) the tar baby?

SNOW: Well, I believe hug the tar baby, we could trace that back to American lore.

OK. Let’s look at the actual history of Tar Baby and see if it has a place coming out of the mouth of the White House Press Secretary.

The tar baby is a form of a character widespread in African folklore. In various folktales, gum, wax, or other sticky material is used to trap a person.

The folktale achieved currency in the United States in written form in one of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories, a collection of stories based on African-American folklore, narrated by the fictional Uncle Remus, a former slave. In the story “Tar-Baby,” the character Brer Fox makes a doll out of tar, which he places by the road to entrap his enemy Brer Rabbit. Brer Rabbit talks to the doll, and when it doesn’t answer, he hits it, and gets stuck in the tar. The more he struggles with it, the more he is entangled in it.

This story has led to the figurative use of tar baby in the sense ‘an inextricable problem or situation’, sometimes with the nuance ‘something used to entrap a person’. Both the examples cited in the question show the use of this sense, which appears to be first used in the early twentieth century.

The expression tar baby is also used occasionally as a derogatory term for black people (in the U.S. it refers to African-Americans; in New Zealand it refers to Maoris), or among blacks as a term for a particularly dark-skinned person. As a result, some people suggest avoiding the use of the term in any context.

Maybe Tony likes to use jigaboo from time to time as well.


Paul had this interesting insight on the whole thing.

Too funny. I was reading through the comments on the “tar baby” posting in C&L; when I came across a comment which said something like “I’m surprised he didn’t use the word ‘niggardly’.”

I was going to respond to that, as the word has nothing to do with the N word and comes from a completely different place, but seems to cause consternation whenever it appears, in what I and others think may be a case of p.c. carried a bit too far.

Before posting my reply I googled the word niggardly just to make sure that my understanding was correct and came across this quote from a Salon article: (note the name of the columnist in the 2nd ‘graph).

“David Howard, the white director of a Washington D.C. municipal agency [..] told his staff that, in light of budget cutbacks, he would have to be “niggardly” with funds. An uproar followed that resulted in Howard’s resignation, which was accepted by Mayor Anthony Williams on the grounds that Howard had shown poor judgment.

Even some of the commentators who admitted that they knew that “niggardly” has no relation to “nigger” (the origins of the first word predate those of “nigger” by about 300 years) still condemned Howard. They were answered by the columnist Tony Snow, who wrote, “David Howard got fired because some people in public employ were morons who

a) didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘niggardly’

b) didn’t know how to use a dictionary to discover the word’s meaning and

c) actually demanded that he apologize for their ignorance.”

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Pam Spaulding

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