A confession: ITQ, too, once laboured under the misapprehension that “tar baby” was actually a pithy, if anachronistic Southern colloquialism, and not a racial slur. In fact, she very nearly deployed it in a recent blog post. Luckily, she checked with her Hot Room colleagues before hitting publish, and was told in no uncertain terms that it was most emphatically not, but given that recent experience, she has no trouble believing that Pierre Poilievre had no clue that he was being hideously offensive — well, hideously offensive in an unintended way. Although really, when considering launching a revival of a word or phrase that seems to have fallen out of use, it’s a good idea to Google it first, just to make sure there’s not a very good reason why nobody says it anymore.
UPDATE: Colleague Wherry has the transcript of Poilievre’s remarks here.
Meanwhile, one of ITQ’s countless fans at PMO sent along the following examples of various media outlets, reporters and former Liberal cabinet ministers using the phrase “tar baby”, apparently without sparking a furious backlash, although it would be interesting to find out if there were any angry letters sent to the editor in response:
“Marois’s effort to shake off the referendum tar baby is good news…” (Editorial, “Cynical PQ bid to rebrand party,” The Toronto Star, Friday, March 7, 2008).
“Same-sex marriage has generally been treated like a political tar baby over the past few years, with most parties reluctant to whip up highly sensitive arguments touching on religion and deeply rooted social values.” (Susan Delacourt, “Martin could exploit gay-marriage gift,” The Hamilton Spectator, Friday, December 10, 2004).
“Nobody is saying you toss over your U.S. relations. Of course you don’t. But it doesn’t mean to say you have to become slavishly connected like some kind of tar baby with them.” (Lloyd Axworthy, “Canada’s new leader to improve U.S. ties,” Detroit Free Press, Thursday, December 11, 2003).
I agreed to post them, for fairness, but I’ll say the same thing here as I said in my email (edited ever so slightly for coherence, and leaving out the other side of the conversation):
Hey, I nearly made the same mistake he did — the difference is that I asked first, and heeded the wisdom of my colleagues. I’m sure he meant no harm, but if I were him, I would just admit it was a bad choice of words and try to move on. You have to pick your battles, etymologically speaking – and this is one that you can’t win.
I think that’s pretty much where I came in, although it’s probably worth noting that it seems to be at least slightly less unacceptable (yes, I know that’s a double negative, just get over it) to use “tar baby” to refer to a concept — like, say, the carbon tax — than a person, but for a politician, at least, it’s probably safest to avoid it completely, no matter how much it may seem to be le mot juste.