During a recent campaign stop, Republican senator and presidential hopeful John McCain responded to a question regarding parental rights and custody battles by saying,
“For me to stand here before all these people and say I’m going to declare divorces invalid because someone feels they weren’t treated fairly in court, we are getting into a tar baby of enormous proportions…”
The term ‘tar baby’ has a rather interesting history attached to it. In its strictest definition, it refers to a situation where one’s involvement makes it increasingly difficult to extricate oneself. It’s a reference to the Br’er Rabbit folklore of the plantation-era American South, which itself finds its origins in the Anansi stories of traditional African folklore.
Along the way, however, the term has acquired a pejorative connotation through its use a racial epithet, and Senator McCain, despite his apologies, is now taking some heat for his use of the term.
The Senator’s linguistic impropriety brings to mind another story involving the use of questionable language and terminology. In 1999, David Howard, an aide to the mayor of Washington DC, was forced to resign after he used the term ‘niggardly’ during a budget meeting. ‘Niggardly‘ is defined as ‘reluctant to give or spend; stingy; miserly’. Despite its resemblance to that most ugly of slurs, etymologists agree that the two words are completely unrelated.
Language is the Property of the People
I do not write this to castigate Senator McCain. It is obvious to me that there was no malice intended in the words that he chose. And while I pay no more than scant attention to American politics, despite being bombarded by it daily, what I have seen of Senator McCain leads me to believe he is a good and decent man. He has a reputation as a bridge-builder between the two American political parties, and that’s a rare thing in the divisively partisan political climate of the country.
However, there is an important lesson to be taken from both his story and that of David Howard. Despite using language in a way that was ‘technically correct’, both men have faced repercussions.
While dictionaries aim to authoritatively qualify and codify language, the REAL authority in these matters rests with the people.