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To tar someone with the same brush

Posted by Smokey Stover on January 13, 2006

In Reply to: To tar someone with the same brush posted by Leslie on January 13, 2006

: Hi,
: I have checked 'to tar someone with the same brush' in the archive. However, it cannot solve my puzzlement. Does 'to be tarred with the same brush' mean the same as 'to tar someone with the same brush'? According to NTC's American Idioms Dictionary, 'tarred with the same brush' means 'sharing the same characteristics; having the good or bad points as someone else'. To me, it seems totally contrast with 'tar someone with the same brush'. Which one is frequently used? Could you please distinguish these two phrases? Thanks

I don't know why you would ask if "be tarred" (passive voice) is the same as "tar" (active voice). To be tarred is to have it done to you, to tar is to do it to someone else. To be tarred with the same brush means to be smeared, defiled, stained, with the same accusation as the other one mentioned. There has to be a characteristic already mentioned in order to be "tarred with the same brush [as the one used before]." And the characteristic is NEVER positive, always negative. To be tarred is literally to be blackened (since the substance tar is black), and figuratively to have your reputation blackened, to be denigrated or sullied. Nowadays only the figurative meaning applies (I hope).

If you've looked this up, then you know that being tarred was at one time, in the U.S., literally to be covered with tar as a form of humilitation and punishment--either for doing wrong or for being different (e.g., being racially black). Sometimes the tarring was followed by being covered with feathers, as from a pillow or a recent chicken-plucking, hence "tarred and feather." This might be followed by being ridden out of town on a rail (e.g., fence rail). I cannot give you the history of this practice; perhaps someone else knows.