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Tarred with the same brush

HIS FIRST DAY on the job, White House press secretary Tony Snow stepped up to the lectern and straight into a linguistic snare. Responding to a question about government surveillance, he said, ``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."

Six weeks later, the blogosphere is still debating his choice of words. ``Tar Baby is a derogatory term, and Snow should be fired for using it," wrote one reader, speaking for those who heard a racial slur, during an online chat at washingtonpost.com.

Ridiculous, said others. ``I can't believe I'm defending [Snow], but there's nothing wrong with what he said," wrote a HuffingtonPost correspondent. ``As Random House says, the tar baby represents `an inextricable problem or situation used to entrap a person.' The more you struggle with it, the more you are entangled."

The tar baby as Americans know her comes from Joel Chandler Harris's 1880 collection of ``Uncle Remus" tales. Brer Fox, you recall, constructed the sticky doll as a snare for the vain Brer Rabbit; when the mute manikin wouldn't return Brer Rabbit's greeting, he took offense, punching and kicking till he was glued to her at every extremity.

The metaphorical usage--tar baby as sticky trap--emerged in the early 20th century, according to the Random House Mavens' Word-of-the-Day. It's not till the 1940s that it emerges as a racial epithet, ``used occasionally as a derogatory term for black people ... or among blacks as a term for a particularly dark-skinned person."

The racial sense of tar baby may seem obvious now, but it's worth noting that it's based on mere coincidence. In many similar folk tales, says the Random House entry, ``gum, wax, or other sticky material is used to trap a person." So the tar baby's blackness is incidental; if the doll in the American story had been stickified with Super Glue or marshmallow Fluff, we'd have no tar baby. And if nature had made tar green, tar baby wouldn't look like a racial slur.

Sixty years on, how widespread is that chance racial epithet? Hard to say, since the derogatory sense is less likely to show up in print, but it doesn't seem to be in wide circulation among the young and hip. John McWhorter, a linguist and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, thinks it's already somewhat antique: ``In my 40-year life as a black person, and growing up with a social-work professor mother highly interested in and sensitive about race, I never once heard tar baby used as an insult," he e-mailed last week. Words come and go, says McWhorter, ``and that includes racial slurs."

And though the racist tar baby may have tainted the useful metaphor, it's not inevitable that the worse meaning will win. We're all deft jugglers of multiple senses, as Jon Stewart demonstrated (wittingly or not) by including faux-racist homonyms in his ``Daily Show" commentary on the Snow flap: ``I'd hate to expose any chinks in his armor, especially since his reputation has been spick and span." Nobody blinks at these innocent usages, of course.

For that matter, no one blinked at Jim Spencer's language in the Denver Post in 2003: ``In March, this country's leaders convinced us we had the power and obligation to invade Iraq. ... Last week, those same leaders started looking to the United Nations to pull them free of a Middle Eastern tar baby." In the years since, newspapers have printed dozens of references to Iraq as the administration's ``tar baby" without causing a ruckus.

And even now, with our post-Tony Snow raised consciousness, the term doesn't necessarily cause trouble. Tom Ashbrook, host of WBUR's nationally distributed talk show ``On Point," called the Guantanamo prison camp ``a real tar baby" during a June 16 broadcast; as of a week later, he said, nobody had registered a complaint.

If we all agree, for good reasons or bad, that the tar baby metaphor should be taboo, then it will be; that's the way language works. In the meantime, though, if the term is appropriate for use by critics of the administration, it can hardly be off limits to the press secretary. As that other bit of folk wisdom has it, what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

E-mail freeman@globe.com. For four weeks' worth of The Word, visit boston.com/news/globe/ideas/freeman.

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