Tar Baby:

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.


A comment on the "tar baby" thread referred to the claim that "picnic" is offensive because it refers to a lynching, the theory being that they were referred to as "pick nigs" or some such. The most prominent media source I could find that described such a complaint was this, from Andrew Brownstein, Albany Times Union, Apr. 18, 2000 (though the commenter reports that he too had been admonished about using the word):

To many, the word picnic conjures images of romance, of leisurely days in the park with cheese and a bottle of wine.

But for 40 University at Albany students, it harks back to an ugly chapter in American history -- when picnic, they alleged, meant a racist lynching....

Zaheer Mustafa, a student who serves as affirmative action director for the Student Assembly, issued the warning despite learning that the word had a harmless French derivation. It stems from the 17th-century pique-nique and referred to a fashionable type of social entertainment in which each person who attended brought a share of the food.

"My job is to make sure people from underrepresented groups are heard," Mustafa said. "Whether the claims are true or not, the point is the word offended."

He said he received 40 complaints about the issue last week, most of them from black students, which he called "unusual for such an apathetic campus." ...

Indeed, neither the current meaning nor the derivation of the word is related to lynchings; nor have I seen any evidence that the word was ever actually used in the "pick nig" sense. I'm not sure what Mr. Mustafa's job was, but I had thought that a university's job is to make sure that people from all groups, underrepresented and otherwise, are educated, and that their erroneous beliefs are corrected rather than being catered to.


The last few posts reminded me of two incidents in 1993-94 (which I also blogged about back in 2002) in which people complained about my using the term "handicapped," rather than "disabled." "Handicapped," they pointed out, comes from "cap in hand," referring to handicapped people begging with their caps in their hands. (A NEXIS search reveals several newspaper stories in which other people also make this claim.)

Actually, it comes from "hand in cap," a betting game (see, e.g., the New Shorter Oxford, but I've found the same derivation in other sources); from there it evolved into handicaps as burdens that one party labors under in a game (as in golf or horse racing); and from there it apparently evolved into burdens that people labor under as a result of cruel fate. People are getting offended -- and then trying to use that offense to change others' speech -- based on sheer myth.

Why "I'd Prefer If You Called Us X" Isn't Enough of an Argument in My Book:

On the "handicapped" thread, Trevor Morrison asks:

My mother spent years as an advocate for the disabled. On the basis of her work there, I'm reasonably certain that people actually involved in the lives of the disabled tend to favor "disabled" over "handicapped." Your defense of "handicapped" relies on your account of the word's etymology. So is your position that the formal definition and origin of a word always defines its appropriate usage, or do contemporary changes in usage affect things?

A good question, which I think deserves a detailed answer.

First, let me make clear that I don't think etymology dictates meaning; my post about "handicapped" was a rebuttal to the argument that "handicapped has a pejorative etymology, therefore it's a rude term to use"; that argument, I pointed out, was premised on an inaccurate factual claim. But one can still argue that the term is pejorative even if its original meaning is fairly innocent. Let me also make clear that I don't want to fault anyone for trying extra hard to accommodate what he sees as the preferences of a group or some members of that group; if that's your choice, fine by me.

Rather, it seems to me that the interesting question here is whether people have some sort of good manners obligation to abandon "disabled" for "handicapped," "American Indian" for "Native American," "black" for "African American," and so on. I think the answer is generally no, unless the old term is so commonly used as a pejorative that listeners can reasonably infer that your use of it is pejorative, or possibly if the old term is so rarely used and thus archaic that listeners can reasonably wonder "what does he mean by that?" when they hear it (e.g., "Negro" or "Hebrew" as a noun to refer to Jews). The mere fact that some members of a group, or even a majority of the members of a group, prefer the new term doesn't impose on us an obligation to use the new term. Here are a few reasons why.

1. To begin with, note that Prof. Morrison cites the views not of the disabled generally (a hard group to poll), but of "people actually involved in the lives of the disabled." More precisely, I suspect that he is relying on the views of those people who are "advocates of the disabled" and who are outspoken enough to express their views as to the preference. This may well be a highly unrepresentative sample of the disabled.

Just by way of example, a 1995 Labor Department survey reported that 50% of American Indians preferred "American Indian" and only 37% preferred "Native American"; 44% of blacks preferred "Black" and only 40% preferred "African-American" or "Afro-American"; 58% preferred "Hispanic" and only 12% preferred "Latino" (no separate data was given for "Latino/a"). Matters may have shifted some since 1995, but not vastly; and I'm pretty sure that in 1995, the preferred terms among activists were "Native American," "African-American," and (here I'm less sure) "Latino," yet the actual majority (or, for blacks, plurality) preferences were different. (Source: U.S. News & World Report, Nov. 20, 1995.) Even if I thought that I had some moral or good manners responsibility to use the label preferred by a strong majority of the group, I see no basis for accepting such a responsibility to use the label preferred by a vocal minority, or even half of the group.

2. Moreover, shifting from an old label to a new label is not cost-free. It's not cost-free for the speaker. Sometimes the new term has shades of meaning that aren't quite apt for certain uses, and thus requires extra work to think through. ("African-American," for instance, isn't a racial group, but a racial subset of Americans; it thus isn't always an apt substitute.) Sometimes the new term carries an ideological literal meaning that the spaker may disliks evoking, even when it's fairly clear that he's using the term just as a label and not for its literal meaning. This is clearest for "differently abled" or "Latter-Day Saint" (I have nothing against Mormons, but I prefer not to call them Saints, even with the implied quotes). But it may also apply in other situations, such as with "disabled"; some people may genuinely prefer to stress the handicap (i.e., burden) under which a person labors rather than his disability.

Sometimes the word acquires a connotation of adherence to the ideology that spawned it; the word "womyn" may be the most famous example, though I suspect that these days it's so often used facetiously that people may want to avoid it for that reason as well. Speakers may then resist using the term because they don't want to be seen as proclaiming allegiance to an ideology that they do not adhere to. Sometimes the new term is just clunkier and sounds more stilted to many people; some, I suspect, take this view as to African-American, and I suspect that headline writers are especially unhappy with it.

3. But the more important cost to the speaker is that telling people that they should stop saying certain words, not because those words are likely to be reasonably interpreted as expressing hostility, but simply because some other people dislike those words, is itself something of an affront to dignity and a possible source of offense. Even the good-mannered among us cherish our freedom to speak as we please, and while we try not to be rude (in the sense of slighting others or saying bad things about them), we understandably bristle at being told to stop using this word and start using that one on pain of Being a Bad Person.

A sound explanation that shows why people are reasonably offended by a term (for instance, an explanation to someone coming from Russia, where "black" is insulting much like "yellow" would be, and "negro" is considered the proper scientific term, that in America "negro" is so rarely used that it sounds like a deliberate insult at worst or one of those what-did-he-mean-by-that? archaicisms at best) might soften the sting. But simply saying "most of us like this term, so stop using this other one that you've used all your life" is a legitimate source of offense for those whose speech people are trying to control. It's even more such a source if those people were once taught by then-representatives of the same group that "handicapped" was the better term, and some years later are now told that it's become bad. And it's especially so when the number of forbidden words grows and grows ("rule of thumb," "Chinese wall," "seminal," etc.).

4. On top of that, there's also another substantial cost to the "If you aren't a bigot, stop saying 'handicapped' and say 'disabled' instead" approach: It may actually increase how often the group that one is trying to protect from offense ends up feeling offended.

If handicapped people learn that some people say "disabled" and others say "handicapped," and that neither is evidence of hostility, a few might still bristle at one (or the other); but many will be satisfied by the explanation that decent people use both. But say that everyone is told that "disabled" is the one right term, and some decent people don't go along, whether because of force of habit, strong preference for "handicapped," or just bristling at being told what to say. Then handicapped people who hear the term may well become more offended, because they've been taught that the word is offensive.

People who might even prefer to shrug the term off might feel almost obligated to take it as an insult. If someone calls me "Gene" rather than "Eugene," I'm a little annoyed (that's just not the name I prefer in English), but I assume that it's just because they've fallen into that habit with other Eugenes they know, who do go by Gene in a way that I don't. I assume the speaker's intentions were good, and I think I'm happier for it.

But if someone started a campaign of insisting that calling me Gene is actually rude, perhaps even insulting (because the diminutive implies a diminution of my status), I'd both hear "Gene" a bit less often, and be much more annoyed when I do hear it, precisely because I'll worry that it's a deliberate violation of the New Good Manners Rule and thus a deliberate slight. Those who make the handicapped/disabled issue into a matter of identity politics rather than just a matter of apricot/apricot (or even Gene/Eugene) may thus increase the amount of hurt feelings on both sides.

5. So I think the approach that's more tolerant of speakers, ultimately more likely to avoid offense to the subjects of the speech, and less likely to be subject to the whims of a small minority of activists is generally to tolerate both the old terms and the new terms, and not consider either to be a breach of good manners.

There are exceptions. One, as I noted above, is when one term is so often used pejoratively that reasonable listeners might assume that the current user is using it pejoratively. Another is when the term is so archaic that it will make people wonder whether the speakers must have some ulterior motive in using it (the obvious motive, which is that it's a commonly used term that springs to people's minds naturally, being absent). There may well be others; rules of manners are often not competely simple and crisp. But as to handicapped/disabled, or American Indian/Native American, or black/African American, the let-at-least-a-couple-flowers-bloom approach strikes me as the clearly preferable one.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Handicapped vs. Disabled:
  2. Why "I'd Prefer If You Called Us X" Isn't Enough of an Argument in My Book:
  3. Handicapped:
  4. Picnic:
  5. Tar Baby:
Handicapped vs. Disabled:

Edwin Battistella's Bad Language p. 98 (2005) explains the supposed superiority of "disabled" over "handicapped":

[O]ne can argue that disabled is the optimal choice on the basis of conciseness, accuracy, politeness, and connotation.... The term handicapped ... carries the connotation of being held back in some competitive enterprise (we talk of social handicaps, golf handicaps, and racing handicaps) and is unwelcome by some people with disabilities.

I've heard this argument from others as well.

But wait: The term disabled carries the connotation of not being able, which surely holds one back in various enterprises, competitive and otherwise. In fact, if you're looking at the connotations that stem from the word's visible etymology, "handicapped" seems more favorable — it suggests that someone's path is harder because of the burden under which he labors, but it does not suggest that he's not able. Horses or golfers who labor under heavy handicaps may sometimes win. Horses or golfers who are disabled (in the literal sense) don't win.

Now etymology, even visible etymology, will only carry you so far; there are other aspects to this issue, which I've touched on elsewhere (here and here). But if one does focus on visible etymology, it seems to me that "handicapped" should be the superior term.