Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has gotten into trouble for referring to the Big Dig as a "tar baby": "'The best thing politically would be to stay as far away from that tar baby as I can," he told a crowd of about 100 supporters in Ames, Iowa."
Black leaders were outraged at his use of the term, which dates to the 19th century Uncle Remus stories by journalist Joel Chandler Harris. The term refers to a doll made of tar that traps Br'er Rabbit, the main characters in the series of stories. It has come to be known as a way of describing a sticky mess — and has been used as a derogatory term for a black person.
"Tar baby is a totally inappropriate phrase in the 21st century," said Larry Jones, a black Republican and civil rights activist.
As a practical matter, politicians may be well advised to stay away from words or phrases that may be seen by some — whether rightly or wrongly — as offensive. But it seems to me that the rest of us, regardless of our race, have no legitimate grounds for complaining about statements like Romney's.
"Tar baby" is one of many words that has a standard and common meaning that is not pejorative, and that isn't even derived from a pejorative concept or strengthened by its association with a pejorative concept, but at the same time has a completely different meaning than is derogatory. Using it in a context where there's no reason to think the speaker is saying something pejorative (such as this context) is no more offensive than saying "a chink in his armor," "spic and span," or "nip it in the bud" where there's no reason to think the speaker is trying to insult the Chinese, Hispanics, or the Japanese.
Conversely, it seems to me that if you complain about Romney's use of "tar baby," you must equally condemn someone who innocently says "nip it in the bud." Both "tar baby" and "nip" can be and have been used as pejoratives; "nip" is, I suspect, even more broadly known as a pejorative than "tar baby" (Romney said he was unaware of the pejorative meaning, which seems to me plausible). Both are being used without any such intention. Someone who is actually trying to figure out what the speaker means would clearly and quickly grasp that the speaker is using the term with the innocent meaning. It seems to me that either you must condemn both (and the other examples) as "totally inappropriate," or, in my view the better position, avoid taking offense where none was intended.
Thanks to Richard Graves for the pointer.