Interestingly, none of the people who answered my poll cited that as the first time they heard the phrase; 41% of you first heard it reading my LJ entry, making me think this story didn't get much press outside of Pierce and King counties, or else none of you locals read about it in the paper.
Anyway, the other thing I find interesting is that as far as I can tell, the legislator used the slur improperly. I don't mean improper in the Political Correctness sense, I mean inaccurate, like saying "wetback" when the word you want is "redneck". The Tribnet story has this bit:
The phrase Deccio chose is used to convey a similar meaning to the term "snake in the grass."
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the expression as "a concealed motive or unknown factor affecting a situation in an adverse way."
Now, the OED definition is the sense I'd always known, especially in regards to Genealogy. Back in the day, especially in the Southern parts of this country, if there were black folks in your recent ancestry, it was a family secret, best hushed up for the common good. I've also heard this sentiment about white ancestors of African-Americans; you just didn't talk about it, and you didn't tell the kids. The concealment wasn't neccessarily a malicious thing, just a (probably correct) idea that people would treat you differently (i.e. worse) if this fact was known about your great grandpa. Today this is less a big deal, unless of course your dad spent the majority of your life as a throwback segregationist blowhard. For an exhaustive academic article on the metaphor of the "woodpile" as ancestry/geneaology, see this article.
So anyway, given the "Southern" definition of an ethnically "other" ancestor, and the OED definition that basically means "a secret with adverse consequences", where are people, especially journalists, getting "snake in the grass"? The two online dictionaries I looked in defined "snake in the grass" as "a treacherous person" or '"a secretly faithless friend", which is my understanding of the phrase. The Tribnet article, in keeping with that Tacoma daily's fine journalism standards, basically says "the phrase he used means "snake in the grass", and here's the OED definition, which means something else, which somehow proves he meant "snake in the grass".
I just find it amusing that the dude used a racially inappropriate phrase, but it also seems to not be the right phrase for the sentiment he wanted. I think he did mean "snake in the grass"; it doesn't sound like being a "perennial obstacle" to health care reform is a "concealed motive" or "unknown factor" deserving of the woodpile epithet. Note that both men are Republicans and therefore the snake in the grass/treacherous friend meaning makes more sense than if it was a Democrat being an obstacle.
So in conclusion, kids, if you're going to use potentially offensive words in public, be more like this wonky guy who correctly used "niggardly" as a synonym for "stingy" and then made everyone see he wasn't a racist, just a smart-ass with a big vocabulary.The above article has a killer last line:
As for Howard, he says that in the future, he'll use the word "parsimonious" instead.
Oh yeah, everyone who doesn't know the correct meaning of "niggardly" is SURE to know "parsimonious" instead. How about just saying "miserly" or "cheap", you thesaurus-toting dork?