1informal A difficult problem that is only aggravated by attempts to solve it.
- ‘disposal of nuclear waste was a problem whose solution was endlessly delayed, a tar baby no one wanted anything to do with’
- ‘What makes their revolution even more unlikely is that they have collectively picked up the two ‘tar babies’ of American swimming - club support/development and governance.’
- ‘I don't know how we would have let go of that tar baby once we had grabbed hold of it.’
- ‘Yes, this is the enigmatic legacy of the 1960s, that tar baby of American cultural politics.’
- ‘I compiled a list of possible damage control measures I intend on using in the hearings that I hope will be useful in extricating ourselves from this tar baby.’
2US offensive A contemptuous term for a black person.
The term tar baby is most commonly used to refer to a difficult problem that is only aggravated by attempts to solve it, alluding to an incident in Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus (1881). The use as a racial slur arose by the 1940s, and because of its highly offensive nature, the original meaning is now often regarded as offensive by association
With allusion to the doll smeared with tar as a trap for Brer Rabbit, in J. C. Harris's Uncle Remus.