Tar baby

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Tar baby is a term that most believe has a negative connotation. We will examine the meaning of the term tar baby, where it came from and some examples of its use in sentences.

A tar baby is a difficult situation that is impossible to solve. The harder one struggles, the harder it is to extricate oneself from a tar baby. A tar baby is a trope of African folklore, made up of wax or gum or some other sticky material and used to literally trap someone. The tar baby was introduced to the general public by Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus stories published in 1881. The Uncle Remus stories were a collection of African-American folktales adapted by Harris, featuring characters such as Br’er Fox, Br’er Bear and Br’er Rabbit. Br’er is a dialect contraction for “brother”. The stories proved quite popular, and were turned into a live action and animated movie by Walt Disney called Song of the South, released in 1946 and probably most famous for the song Zip-a-dee-do-dah. In the Tar baby story, Br’er Fox concocts a baby made up of tar and turpentine in order to ensnare Br’er Rabbit. Br’er Rabbit comes upon the tar baby along the road and tells him good morning. When the tar baby doesn’t respond, Br’er Rabbit becomes enraged and strikes him, becoming ensnared. Br’er Fox appears and instead of eating Br’er Rabbit, is tricked into throwing him into the briar patch. Since rabbits know their way around briar patches, Br’er Rabbit escapes. Though the term tar baby clearly refers to an inanimate object, the term has also been used in a derogatory manner to mean a black person. For this reason, it is best not to use the term tar baby. Note that tar baby was once hyphenated, as in tar-baby, but the Oxford English Dictionary now lists the term as two separate, unhyphenated words.


According to Politico, Barbour described Obama’s policies as “tar babies” on a conference call with clients of the lobbying firm he founded. (The Washington Post)

Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday called efforts to change Proposition 13, California’s landmark property tax-limiting measure, a “tar baby.” (The Sacramento Bee)