Tar Baby

Tar Baby comes from an "Uncle Remus" story, in which a fox (Br'er Fox) makes a baby made of tar in a plan to trap Br'er Rabbit. Br'er Rabbit duly comes along and says "Hi" to the Tar Baby, and then is annoyed when it refuses to be polite. In an effort to teach it manners Br'er Rabbit takes a poke at it and gets first stuck and then completely ensnared.

The phrase is now used as a colorful(!) way of saying that a discussion is pointless, although an alternative lesson is that when someone is rude, or ignores you, perhaps, after making due effort, you should ignore them. Violence is, after all, the last refuge of the incompetent.

Eg: "He sent me an email, but I'm not fighting that tarbaby."

See http://www.otmfan.com/html/brertar.htm
Another, similar meaning, is "being stuck with that TarBaby", referring to the time when you choose to take up or are given responsibility for some not-so-fun job which, once you begin to work on it, you can't ever get free of. "My boss made me the support person for (crufty old obsolete software)." -- StevenNewton

Although the phrase TarBaby originally stems from an African folk tale, at some point in the UnitedStates it gained a second meaning as a racial slur for black people. In that sense it's about as nasty as "nigger" or "coon". (Note that this is not the same as people objecting to the use of the word "niggardly": "TarBaby" has a history of actual usage as an epithet.) So use it with caution if you decide it's worth using at all.

Interesting. I currently live and work in the Southeastern USA, and I can't recall hearing "TarBaby" being used as a racial slur by anyone living.

Yeah, I wasn't sure about it myself, until I did a Google search for the term and found this track listing of a neo-Nazi punk album:

  1. Tar Baby
  2. Smear the Queer
  3. Moon Cricket
  4. Nightmares
  5. Kill all the People
  6. Football Violence
  7. Nightriders
  8. C'm all of you White Men
  9. Hoodoo Woodoo
  10. Day of the Rope
  11. Better off Crazy
  12. I Hate People
  13. Pink Door
  14. White Nigger vs. Black Nigger
  15. Jew Boy (live)
  16. White Nigger (live)
  17. Whip It (live)

I don't think you can conclude that it's a racial slur just because there's 1(!) Neo-Nazi Punk song by that name. I would have expected dozens of hits to show up, where term is used in context as a racial slur, if it really were one.
Compare with HoneyPot, which is has a similar meaning, but without any nasty racial overtones (unless you're AaMilne).

Uhhh - I don't know where this aside is coming from, but the only meaning I've ever known for HoneyPot is as a sexual metaphor.

The term HoneyPot has taken on a meaning like SpiderTrap. It's a server that's a big juicy target for crackers. The crackers attack the HoneyPot, meanwhile the security people trace the crackers.

If you need a saying for obnoxious, endless work, what's wrong with 'kicking a dead whale down the beach'?

TarBaby has the implications that you can't stop working - you're stuck to it. Dead whales, while difficult, rarely grab hold of you....

Outside of the hilarious folktale, I've never heard TarBaby used in any context except as a name for something that you can't let go of once you touch it. I grew up in the south, and I've never heard "TarBaby" used with any racist overtones (although the entire Uncle Remus collection has been criticized at times). Here's the definition from the Random House Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (Second Edition, 1987):

tar baby, a situation, problem, or the like, that is almost impossible to solve or to break away from. Also tarbaby. [after the tar doll used to trap Brer Rabbit in an Uncle Remus story (1881) of Joel Chandler Harris]

-- TomStambaugh

I've also never heard it used as a racial epithet, but people seem to have become sensitive to that possible interpretation and don't use it much. See http://www.blackcommentator.com/tar_baby.html. The funny thing is that the incident reads to me like a misinterpretation. I think that the accused person was referring to a task as a tar baby, but the comment was taken to mean that they were referring to another (black) person as a tar baby.

I haven't heard the English term TarBaby to refer to a target for crackers (HoneyPot I've heard); however the German word TirGrube? (which I believe means "tarpit") is used for a common technique to deter spammers - consisting of a fake SMTP server which "times out" the spammer's mailsystem if email is sent to it.

The other meaning for HoneyPot I'm most familiar with is a slang term for a portable toilet or an outhouse.

-- ScottJohnson

For a timely political commentary on the current situation in Iraq, try reading the story out loud, only change the characters to be Br'er-Bush, Br'er-Saddam, and for TarBaby, substitute Br'er-Osama. It may not be politically correct, but the metaphor works extremely well, I think. If you disagree, by all means let's argue. This is the ideal place for such an argument, after all. -- JohnDowd

This is all quite odd to me, in that where I was raised, TarBaby is an emblem of the wisdom of silence TarBaby, he just sit there, he don't say nothing.
I was raised around racists and I've never heard the term used as a racial slur. I have heard it used when talking about buggy code, though. In shops with a strong sense of CodeOwnership people tend to avoid fixing bugs in mysterious, undocumented, disowned code. They know that once they fix a bug they become the de facto owner and all future bug fixes/enhancements will be their responsibility. -- EricHodges

I was born in 1966 in Maryland and while I've never heard anyone actually use this as a racial slur out loud recently, I've heard it used as a slur where I lived in both Boston and Mississippi. It is indeed a racial slur, however uncommon. -- Rich Dean
I've heard of the term being used by MPs in Canada as a racial slur against the Aboriginals. It is considered very offensive by a lot of the Aboriginals there. Here's an article about it: http://www.rabble.ca/babble/canadian-politics/conservative-mp-pierre-poilievre-uses-phrase-tar-baby. I think it has something to do with how whites thought their skin colours were weird or something, but I am not 100% sure on that. I just know that it is frowned upon when used in Canada.

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