tar > paint > taint ?

Dennis R. Preston preston at MSU.EDU
Fri Feb 10 16:18:55 UTC 2006

arnold misses also the old expression "has (got) just a touch of the
tar brush" for a person whose African American ancestry was minimal
(or suspected), e.g., "Do you reckon old Herb's got just a touch of
the tar brush in him?" This was common in the Louisville area in the
40s and 50s, but I suspect it was much more widespread. I heard it
only from European-Americans, and I do not know if has (or had) any
currency in African American communities. I do remember that the
expression made us kids regard the Uncle Remus "Tar Baby" story as
unambiguously racist (on the basis of the title alone).



>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

Dennis R. Preston
University Distinguished Professor
Department of English
Morrill Hall 15-C
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824-1036 USA
Office: (517) 353-4736
Fax: (517) 353-3755

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

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