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In association with my question about the names of foods that have a risk of turning into an offensive remark, there was the following statement in New Yorker’s (May 25) article titled “Sergio Garcia and the lifespan of an offensive remark”:

“That decidedly tame scandal was fanned for a while by reporters, who kept asking the two about each other, and writing down the barely barbed things they said. “He’s not the nicest guy on tour, said Sergio of Woods. “Not real surprising that he’s complaining about something,” Tiger said of Sergio. Even for golf, this squabble seemed tame.”

I’m not familiar with the usage of the word, ‘tame’ other than the implication of docility as defined by Cambridge English Dictionary:

Adjective. (especially of animals) not wild or dangerous, either naturally or because of training or long involvement with humans:

While OED gives a wider scope of definition of ‘tame’ as an adjective than Cambridge Dictionary does:

  1. (of an animal) not dangerous or frightened of people, domesticated.
  2. informal (of a person) willing to cooperate.
  3. (derogatory) not exciting, adventurous, or controversial.
  4. North American (of a plant) produced by cultivation.

With that said, questions,

(1) What does ‘tame’ in the quoted sentence (tame scandal / tame quibble) mean? How can it be rephrased?

(2) If it means an “unexciting / uncontroversial” trivial matter as defined in 3. of OED definition, why the press made a fuss? Why had Garcia to apologize to Woods and public?

(3) Is this usage of the word, ‘tame’ in the sense of “not exciting / unworthy of note / trifling” as prevailing as the meaning of ‘not wild’ and ‘docile’ only to which I’m accustomed?

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1  
you've answered your own question with the OED quote. Both those sentences use meaning 3. Someone said something wrong then said sorry. Just not a big deal. –  Kate Gregory May 31 '13 at 12:44

4 Answers 4

up vote 3 down vote accepted

At least in BrEng, this is not an unusual usage of the word tame. I wouldn't say that it is as prevailing as the 'not wild' meaning, but it's certainly not uncommon.

Chambers has:

tame adj (tamer, tamest)
1. said of animals: used to living or working with people; not wild or dangerous.
2. said of land, etc: changed by people from a natural wild state; cultivated.
3. docile, meek and submissive.
4. dull and unexciting; insipid • a tame ending to the story.
verb (tamed, taming)
1. to make (an animal) used to living or working with people.
2. to make meek and humble; to deprive someone or something of spirit; to subdue.
...
ETYMOLOGY: Anglo-Saxon tam.

Collins has:

adjective
1. changed by man from a naturally wild state into a tractable, domesticated, or cultivated condition
2. (of animals) not fearful of human contact
3. lacking in spirit or initiative; meek or submissive ⇒ a tame personality
4. flat, insipid, or uninspiring ⇒ a tame ending to a book
5. slow-moving ⇒ a tame current
verb
1. to make tame; domesticate
2. to break the spirit of, subdue, or curb
3. to tone down, soften, or mitigate

In the passage you quote, I would understand it as:

not exciting;
only a mild disagreement - not 'heated';
not very aggressive;
civilised;
...

Additionally, the phrase (within your quotation)

the barely barbed things they said

suggests only a mild disagreement with each of them not really wanting to say 'pointed' things, nor speak 'sharply' about the other.

In that tame is (even in the animal sense) the opposite of wild, in this context, it can also be appropriate as an opposite to the following meanings of wild (from Chambers):

wild adj
...
4. said of peoples: savage; uncivilized.
5. unrestrained; uncontrolled • wild fury.
6. frantically excited.
7. distraught • wild with grief.
...
13. colloq furious; extremely angry.

[In the light of the subsequent answer from @tylerharms, I should perhaps add that, when writing the answer above, I didn't know what 'scandal' the quotation related to, altho' (now reminded by that answer) I do recall hearing about it.
Also, as a Brit, non-golfer, and non-sportsman, I didn't understand what the allegedly offensive remark was alluding to (until it was explained in the news), let alone that it could be racially offensive!]

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Taking your questions one at a time,

1) I think you could replace tame in both of those sentences with innocuous, especially the second definition:

not likely to irritate or offend; inoffensive; an innocuous remark.

Sergio's comment about serving fried chicken if Tiger ever came to his house for dinner didn't offend because the two have been publicly butting heads for a long time. With that said, it is a case of racial stereotyping that may not have offended Woods but may have offended others. Which leads me to...

2) The press made a big fuss because Tiger and Sergio have always had a conflicted relationship on tour, and highlighting it adds to the rivalry that the sports community would like to see produce great contests between these two, especially at major PGA tournaments.

3) In many cases I think all of the definitions you give are implied when someone uses tame as an adjective to describe a situation.

A tame party, for example, is probably not wild, not offensive, unexciting, and unworthy of note. The "tame quibble" in the article is most likely tame by media standards. I imagine that some people might find Garcia's remark quite wild and offensive, but the media, which is judging the tameness of the remark by the reactions it created and not the political import of the statement, regarded the situation as relatively tame and not worth much ink. Looking at it this way gives some insight into the value system of the (particularly) American sports media.

With that said, I have never thought of this usage as derogatory. I would think a word like boring used in place of tame would imply a much stronger judgment of the situation.

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Tame is essentially the opposite of Wild. So calling a situation "tame" is saying that it is relatively under control.

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I would choose "mild" as a synonym for "tame" in that context. The antonym for "tame" in that usage could be "violent" squabble, "heated" squabble", "volatile" squabble" or "contentious" squabble"

mild /mīld/

Adjective

1.Gentle and not easily provoked.

2. (of a rule or punishment) Of only moderate severity.

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