Q From David Fosse: I used the phrase, tarred with the same brush recently, meaning, guilty of the same behavior, or acting in the same manner as someone else, or likely to be considered the same as someone else because of similar behavior. I was speaking to a black colleague at the time. I suddenly stopped and asked if she considered the term racist. She did. I have heard it all my life (as the 60-year-old child of parents who grew up in the south) and am pretty sure that it comes from the practice of tarring and feathering. I am not aware, however, of the full history of that lamentable practice, if it was primarily practiced against blacks or if the act had broader targets. So the question is, can tarred with the same brush be used universally, or does it have a racist history?
A There’s nothing directly racist in its history, though there are such huge sensitivities in the United States and elsewhere over any expression that sounds as though it might be (as, for example, with words and phrases such as niggardly, call a spade a spade, and so on), that the reaction of your colleague is understandable. It also sounds as though it might be connected with the deeply pejorative expression a touch of the tar brush to describe somebody of mixed ancestry, though it’s actually a separate linguistic creation.
As it happens, it doesn’t have anything directly to do with tarring and feathering, either, which is an American vigilante punishment known from the eighteenth century (it’s first recorded in Boston, as it happens) and which my reading suggests wasn’t usually a punishment of blacks by whites but of whites by other whites.
The origin is the verb to tar, meaning to defile or dirty, known from the early years of the seventeenth century. The idiom appears in print first in 1818, in one of Sir Walter Scott’s novels, Rob Roy: “They are a’ tarr’d wi’ the same stick — rank Jacobites and Papists.” Our modern form appears in William Cobbett’s Rural Rides in 1823: “‘You are all tarred with the same brush’, said the sensible people of Maidstone.”
The idea behind it is that two individuals who have been liberally daubed or painted with the same tar brush look much the same and so appear to have the same characteristics. The links of the colour black with matters that were detestable, dishonourable or evil also added to the negative sense.