Dirty Words

Arizona Senator John McCain, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and White House Press Secretary Tony Snow all have at least two things in common: They are all Republicans and they have caught flack for using the term “tar baby.”

“The term dates to the 19th-century Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris and refers to a doll made of tar that traps Br’er Rabbit, the main characters in the series of stories. It has come to be known as a way of describing a sticky mess – and also has been used as a derogatory term for an African-American person,” Thomas Beaumont of the Gannett News Service explained in an article last week.

It should be noted that Democratic Senator John Kerry and liberal newspaper columnist Molly Ivins both used the term without suffering, Kerry in 1992 and Ivins in 2001. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

I don’t hear the term “tar baby” used very often these days, but when I do it’s used to describe a sticky situation. I did hear the term used a lot years ago when I worked construction with a rather loquacious gentleman, but he always said it in regards to a situation that involved us up about sixty feet in the air on a lift with a four-hundred-pound piece of glass.

Regardless of my experience with the term, the minor controversy the three Republicans set off (McCain being the most recent) made me think about what we say publicly and how it is construed. Take, for example, Donald Tomnitz.

The chief executive officer of the nation’s largest homebuilder, D.R. Horton, Tomnitz garnered attention two weeks ago when he used the word “suck” to describe the environment in the housing sector.

“I don’t want to be too sophisticated here, but ’07 is going to suck, all 12 months of the calendar year,” Tomnitz told attendees of the Citigroup Industrial Manufacturing Conference.

Tomnitz received a lot of praise from analysts and investors who were relieved to hear some straight talk from a corporate executive. He also received criticism from some analysts who felt his language was coarse and unbecoming of a chief executive officer. That CNBC would spend five minutes debating the topic may say more about the news flow on that particular day, but criticism is criticism.

Like the “tar baby” comments of McCain, Romney and Snow, I didn’t quite understand the hub-bub. The word “suck” has always been just a stronger version of “stink” in my book, and I don’t recall ever being admonished for using it. More so, I’ve also heard a lot worse come out of the mouths of corporate executives in public and private.

There is, of course, language that is coarse in anyone’s book.

“[Michael] Shahbazian reacted temperamentally to [Robert] Chapman with the eloquent response, ‘**** you!’ Mr. Chapman then forcefully informed Mr. Shahbazian that it was inappropriate and inadvisable for the Chief Financial Officer of a public company to utter such blasphemy to the advisor of a 9.3% ownership stakeholder in the Issuer,” Chapman Capital, a hedge fund, disclosed in a recent Securities Exchange Commission filing regarding communications with management of Embarcadero Technologies.

Shahbazian probably isn’t losing much sleep over what he said, but his comments did get picked up in a well-read blog published by The New York Times. Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly used similar language during a not-so-friendly conversation with Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy on the Senate floor three years ago. The incident made headlines around the world, but in my obviously outdated book, I didn’t understand the controversy. I just, well, assumed that politicians used that language when reporters and constituents are not around.

Considering my reactions to these three cases of questionable language, I’m probably not a good barometer for the public at-large. And that’s why this issue is important.

The words we use — be they during an interview, press conference, presentation or private conversation — have an impact on how others view us. And what we say in our own homes or offices, or at the corner coffeeshop or bar, may not be acceptable to others. Those others may include potential or current customers, partners and employers.

Restraining yourself during a private conversation is difficult, but if it’s one that could make it out there publicly, you would be wise to watch your tongue. More important, when dealing with the media and speaking in public venues, you must remember that your words may have an impact, and that impact can be negative.

As for me, I need to flip through the thesaurus and come up with some new adjectives.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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