tar > paint > taint ?

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Thu Feb 9 17:53:13 UTC 2006

from this morning's NPR Morning Edition, spoken by Denise Slavin,
president of the National Association of Immigration Judges:

Unfortunately, there may be problems with a few judges, I don't think
we should all be tainted with the same brush.


well, the original idiom here is "tar with the same brush" (often in
the passive), and that's what you find in idiom dictionaries.  on the
web, "tar" beats out "taint" all hollow (in raw google webhits as of
this morning):

   tarred with the same brush: 59,500
   tainted with the same brush: 313

   tar them all with the same brush: 1,760
   taint them all with the same brush: 28

is this just a substitution blend, with the more literal "taint"
occasionally replacing the metaphorical "tar" in the idiom "tar with
the same brush"?  possibly, but there's a third variant attested
(with "paint"), and it's intermediate in frequency between "tar" and
"taint" (roughly half as frequent as "tar" and hugely more frequent
than "taint"):

   painted with the same brush: 21,300
   paint them all with the same brush: 800

now we have a plausible intermediate stage between "tar" and
"taint":  under the influence of "brush" in the original idiom,
"paint" replaces "tar" (well, people are vastly more familiar with
painting with brushes than they are with tarring things with brushes,
so "paint" is an improvement), and then the negative content of the
idiom is reinforced by replacing the relatively neutral verb "paint"
by the decidedly negative (and phonologically very similar) verb

the first of these steps is just the familiar playing of variations
on idioms.  Riehemann's 2001 dissertation notes that "throw s.o. to
the [large carnivorous animals]" comes in two canonical versions,
with "wolves" and "lions" (wolves over lions about 3 to 1), but is
also attested, in her corpus, with "tigers", "sharks", and "dogs".
there are many similar examples.

the second step might be a substitution blend.  or just a creative
improvement of "paint with the same brush".

arnold (zwicky at csli.stanford.edu)

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

More information about the Ads-l mailing list