It was five years ago now that Mitt Romney and the late White House spokesman Tony Snow both spent time in the hot seat for using the term “tar baby.” Romney was referring to the Big Dig highway project in Boston, and Snow to an abstract debate. But there are those who consider the term, originally referring to something difficult to free oneself from once touched, a racial slur. John McCain nevertheless used it the following year in a discussion of divorce law, and this week it’s Representative Doug Lamborn who is being accused of racism for his comments on a radio show in the wake of the debt ceiling debacle: 

[T]hey will hold the President responsible. Now, I don’t even want to be associated with him, it's like touching a, a tar baby and you get it ... you know you’re stuck and you’re part of the problem and you can’t get away. [emphasis added]

Lamborn has apologized, but the word around the blogosphere, most articulately phrased by David Sirota at Salon, is that Lamborn was using coded language: “[T]he comment reveals how various forms of racism are still being mainstreamed by the fringe right,” as Sirota has it. But before making that judgment, we must ascertain: Is tar baby actually a racial slur?

Certainly not the way the guys before Lamborn were using it. A notion that they were passing a quiet signal to racists is awkward, given the decidedly non-black topics they were discussing. Need we entertain the possibility that Romney was telegraphing a subtle signal to bigots in a discussion of a highway project? Was John McCain preaching a coded message to a racist base in a comment about divorce procedure?

In those instances, a simpler analysis works. Language is all about metaphor, and it is useful to have one to refer to objects or topics that ensnare one upon contact. It’s why the Bre’r Rabbit story the expression traces to has had such legs—as well as why cultures worldwide, including African ones, have equivalent folklore characters. Thus a reasonable analysis is that people reach for this useful metaphor, within the rapid and subconscious activity that speaking entails, unaware that some consider it to have a second meaning as a slur. 

And the “some” that do appear to be in the minority. The Oxford English Dictionary mentions tar baby as a slur online, but not in print. The American Heritage Dictionary, notoriously attuned to everyday usage, does not refer to the slur usage. I, for one, am well aware that there are slurs for black people that are less prominent than the N-word—porch monkey is one that comes up now and then, although I have only heard it referred to, not applied—but only in 2006 did I catch that tar baby was one of them.

If my experience were universal, then no dictionary entry would list it as a slur at all, of course. However, I do not live in a cave, nor do the countless people currently learning for the first time that tar baby is a slur—and I recall assorted media writers equally perplexed when I did interviews on this back in 2006. Tar baby, it seems, is an obscure slur, not even known to be so by a substantial proportion of the population.

When I had a hard time seeing Romney and Snow as racists for using the term in 2006, many purported that tar baby was so obviously a racial slur that I must be dissimulating somehow. I submit, however, that to a large extent, those who feel that tar baby’s status as a slur is patently obvious are judging from the fact that it sounds like a racial slur, because tar is black and baby sounds dismissive. And here’s the crucial point: that, in itself, is a reality that cannot be denied.

Part of the human propensity for metaphor is that we make semantic associations, which drift and reassign over time. As such, it’s not the most graceful thing to refer to a black figure as a tar baby, and it was quite gracious for Lamborn to apologize. However, to assume Lamborn knew the word was a slur and was passing a grimy little signal to his base is unwarranted here. It is the kind of reflexive and recreational abuse we revile when it comes from the other direction (i.e. Obama as a “racist”).

Tar baby is one of those intermediate cases: The basic meaning is the folkloric one, while a derived meaning, known only to a segment of American English speakers (and to many among them, only vaguely) is a dismissive reference to black people.

There will be gaffes with expressions like these, upon which, in a sociologically enlightened society, apologies will be necessary. However, to insist upon the moral backwardness of the apologist is logically incoherent in reference to this particular term, and as such, less sociologically enlightened than it may seem.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor for The New Republic.