Nigger in the woodpile
A nigger in the woodpile or fence is a dated American figure of speech meaning "some fact of considerable importance that is not disclosed—something suspicious or wrong". Commonly used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, usage has declined since then, and use of the phrase by public figures has often been followed by criticism over the offensiveness of the term "nigger".
Both the "fence" and "woodpile" variants developed about the same time in the period of 1840–50 when the Underground Railroad was flourishing. The evidence is slight, but it is presumed that they were derived from actual instances of the concealment of fugitive slaves in their flight north under piles of firewood or within hiding places in stone walls. Another possible origin, comes from the practice of transporting pulpwood on special rail road cars. In the era of slavery, the pulpwood cars were built with an outer frame with the wood being stacked inside in moderately neat rows and stacks. However, given the nature of the cars, it was possible to smuggle persons in the pile itself, possibly giving rise to the term.
This phrase is a metaphor for a leak of information. The origin is simple. Families heated with wood and kept a wood pile outside but close to the home. The implication is that if secrets are leaking outside the home, then the culprit is a thief of information and could easliy be hiding by the stack of wood that is within earshot of the home in order to listen to the discussions without invitation.
An American film comedy titled A Nigger in the Woodpile was released in 1904, and the idiom was common in literature and film during the 1920s and 30s. Examples include the original 1927 version of the Hardy Boys book "The House On the Cliff" (pg. 77), where Frank Hardy uses the expression (removed when the story was revised in 1959), and the old-time band Skillet Lickers recording a song called Nigger in the Woodpile in 1930.
Dr. Seuss used the term in a 1929 cartoon "Cross-Section of The World's Most Prosperous Department Store", wherein customers browse through a department store looking for items to make their lives more difficult. The panels show a series of scenarios based on popular figures of speech: a man with a net trying to catch a fly for his ointment, another looking at monkey wrenches to throw into his machinery, one examining haystacks with matching needles, and finally a man looking at a selection of "niggers" for his woodpile.
The phrase is also used in The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham. One of the American characters, on the brink of closing a business deal, says to the narrator, "I’ll fly down to Texas to give the outfit the once-over, and you bet I’ll keep my eyes peeled for a nigger in the woodpile before I cough up any...dough.” The Razor's Edge (Vintage International) (Part Seven, Chapter 3, p. 244).
Agatha Christie used the phrase as the title of Chapter 18 of the 1937 Hercule Poirot novel Dumb Witness which was later published in the U.S. as Poirot Loses a Client. The chapter was later retitled "A Cuckoo in the Nest".
- "Heavens to Betsy" (1955, Harper & Row) by Charles Earle Funk
- Stewart, Jacqueline Najuma (2005). Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 1. ISBN 0520233506.
- Steve Leggett. "Skillet Lickers, Vol. 4: 1929-1930 - The Skillet Lickers - Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards - AllMusic". AllMusic.
- One Particularly Upsetting And Racist Dr. Seuss Cartoon Is Heading To Auction, Huffington Post, May 27, 2015
- Insurance boss apologises for racist remark Daily Telegraph, Jan 25, 2007 – phrase used by an executive of Standard Life
- BBC apologises for general's 'racist remark' in radio interview, The Independent, Dec 24, 2005 – phrase used by General Patrick Cordingley
- Gary Younge, Not while racism exists, The Guardian, Jan 7, 2002 – use attributed to Germaine Greer
- Media Watch: Alan Moans (16/04/2007)
- "Police chief caught on tape using slur"[dead link]
- "Racist Comment Shocks Planners", The Sydney Morning Herald, Jul 27, 2013
- Sticks and stones... Racial slurs or free speech?, Online Opinion, Mar 1, 2005 - phrase used by former South Australian government minister in parliament
- Racist parody of Republican platform from 1860 Presidential campaign, in Harper's Weekly
- Epistemology of the Woodpile, University of Toronto Quarterly
- History News Network blog post about origins of term
- History News Network blog post about a recent controversy
- Phrase used in 1918 advertisement for Patterson Publishing Company The Rotarian magazine