tar > paint > taint ?

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Fri Feb 10 15:48:28 UTC 2006

On Feb 9, 2006, at 11:21 AM, Wilson Gray wrote:

> FWIW, a minor annotation. There are still places where literal tarring
> is an everyday occurrence. In, for example, St. Louis, tar is commonly
> used to weather-proof the roofs of houses and other buildings. The
> roofers have small wheeled furnaces resembling a miniature locomotive
> firebox that they use to keep the tar liquid while they work.
> Unfortunately, the odor of molten tar is not a pleasant one.

i never commented on the frequency of tarring in modern life, only on
people's familiarity with brushes in connection with tarring.

tarring roofs for weather-proofing is common in, as far as i know,
all american cities.  one section of the roof of my condo complex
needs this treatment periodically, and so does the entire roof of the
office building next door.  most unpleasant smell, as you say.

but we rarely get to observe the process in action.  of course,
something has to be used to apply the tar to the roof, but i doubt
that many people could explain the details or say whether there was a
machine for this purpose or whether it was done with rollers, push-
broom-like tools, brushes, or what.

in addition, roof-tarring is very rarely depicted in our culture,
while painting (of several different kinds) with brushes is very
commonly depicted.  the result is a very high degree of association
between painting and brushes (and a low degree between tarring and

i'll bet that in word association tasks, the highest associate for
"paint" is "brush"; that "paint" is a high associate for
"brush" (perhaps the highest) ; and that "tar" and "brush" have much
lower association strengths (but not near zero, thanks to the idiom
"tar with the same brush"!).

arnold (zwicky at csli.stanford.edu)

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

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