In wandering into that territory, Romney has plenty of company. In May, rookie White House spokesman Tony Snow was asked about the government covertly collecting phone records. "I don't want to hug the tar baby of trying to comment on the program...," Snow replied, which brought him an instant round of static. Two years ago, TIME used the phrase, reporting that John Kerry's presidential advisers were telling him to get away from "the Iraq tar baby."
Is tar baby a racist term? Like most elements of language, that depends on context. Calling the Big Dig a tar baby is a lot different than calling a person one. But sensitivity is not unwarranted. Among etymologists, a slur's validity hangs heavily on history. The concept of tar baby goes way back, according to Words@Random from Random House: "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 term itself was popularized by the 19th-century Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris, in which the character Br'er Fox makes a doll out of tar to ensnare his nemesis Br'er Rabbit. The Oxford American Dictionary defines tar baby much like Romney used it, "a difficult problem, that is only aggravated by attempts to solve it." But the term also has had racial implications. In his book Coup, John Updike says of a white woman who prefers the company of black men, "some questing chromosome within holds her sexually fast to the tar baby." The Oxford English Dictionary (but not the print version of its American counterpart) says that tar baby is a derogatory term used for "a black or a Maori."
So, is use of the term today a case of insensitivity? Or is the controversy caused by political correctness gone amok? The dictionary writers point out that a word's origins and its popular perception can be divergent. Current examples include the detoxification of the words suck and slut, both of which have slipped into mainstream usage. "All words have life cycles," says Erin McKean, editor-in-chief of the Oxford American Dictionary "What's really important is not etymologically what it means, but the effect it has." And that is a constantly evolving standard. Witness the debate over who can and can't use the N-word. McKean says that the next print version of the Oxford American Dictionary will note that tar baby can have derogatory connotations. Which may help public figures avoid becoming ensnared by Br'er Fox more than a century after he set his little trap.