Nigger in the Woodpile: A Cautionary Tale For Public Officials

I was on the telephone over the weekend catching up with a close friend in England. In the course of conversation she coined the phrase “nigger in the woodpile” to which I nearly choked on my own spit.

It wasn’t that I had never heard the phrase used but it certainly was one that seemed to have rightfully died sometime in the 1960’s. The other notion that struck me was that it seems such an American racial slur as opposed to a British racial slur.

After a brief conversation with my 27 year old son I decided to investigate the origin to see if maybe it was used differently in the UK or to find out if the term just never died in England the way it had in the United States.

Here is the definition according to Wikipedia:

Nigger in the Woodpile

A nigger in the woodpile (or fence) is an English figure of speech formerly commonly used in the United States and elsewhere. It means “some fact of considerable importance that is not disclosed – something suspicious or wrong”.

Less commonly it may refer to an “undisclosed black ancestry”.

The Origin of the Phrase:

Both the ‘fence’ and ‘woodpile’ variants developed about the same time in the period of 1840-50 when the Underground Railroad was flourishing successfully, and although the evidence is slight it is presumed that they derived from actual instances of the concealment of fugitive slaves in their flight north under piles of firewood or within hiding places in stone fences[1]

Recent Usage: United Kingdom

In the UK in recent years, the occasional use of this phrase by public figures has normally been followed by an apology.[3] [4] [5]

  • 2007, Bedfordshire County counciller Rhys Goodwin, stepped down as chairman of the environment and economic development committee: “…During a debate on heavy goods vehicle traffic in the county, he wanted to argue that a particular problem in Bedfordshire is the amount of trucks on the roads connected with quarrying. But he used the unfortunate figure of speech before sheepishly rephrasing his point.’[6]
    Goodwin, who was 74 at the time, said: “There was no racist intent at all. For 50 years of my life that was common parlance, with no more a derogatory connotation than the symbol on a jar of marmalade.”[7]
  • 2008, Lord Dixon Smith, Conservative frontbencher, used the phrase in a debate on the Housing and Regeneration Bill: “Of course, the nigger in the woodpile, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has already pointed out, is that it still incorporates what I call the hangover of the new towns legislation.” He immediately apologised to the House. His Lordship, also in his seventies, later commented to journalists that the phrase had been “in common parlance when I was younger”.[8]

According to Wikipedia the phrase was used publicly in 2007 by a Bedfordshire County counciller and once again in 2008 in a debate on British housing legislation…to the political detriment of the user I might add.

What I thought was interesting was the ability to track not only the past history of the phrase but the origin of its resurgence and continued proliferation with the ongoing updating of Wikipedia. Maybe we can use push pins to map the phrases random use then set up a perimeter to contain it…like hoof and mouth or the bird flu.

While Wikipedia noted that the phrase was used in 2007 in Bedfordshire County, it seemed little coincidence that the person I spoke with over the weekend used to live in Bedfordshire County and still returns there to visit friends and neighbors. The other factor that plays into the phrases  proliferation is the deep resentment some Brits feel over the influx of immigrants. While I wouldn’t argue that the English have done well to embrace foreigners it would seem that the prequisite to that acceptance is cultural assimilation and today, moving to a different country does not necessarily mean adopting the local culture.

Now…what do you suppose Rhys Goodwin was referring to when he said “no more derogatory connotation than the symbol on a jar of marmalade”?

12 Comments

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12 responses to “Nigger in the Woodpile: A Cautionary Tale For Public Officials

  1. I think I found an explanation for the marmalade reference:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golliwogg

  2. Hey Amy!
    I’m so behind on…everything, I meant to post back on your last comment and well, you can see how that is turning out.

    Great job on digging up Golliwogg!

    Be well!

  3. No worries, Jody! I understand being swamped, and this weather has me moving at half-speed. Hope you folks are staying warm and well too!

  4. Actually I’ve been under the weather, my son had a cold before Christmas and it caused problems with my sinus’ which I fought for weeks, then I got the flu. I’m better I actually recognized myself in the mirror yesterday.

  5. Paul Farrell

    I have just read your article here
    http://anovelspot.wordpress.com/2009/01/14/nigger-in-the-woodpile/

    and to answer the question you posed at the end……

    The honourable gentleman is referring to Robinsons marmalade which used a Golly as its trade symbol for 91 years (1910-2001)before bowing to political correctness pressure and removing it from its labels.

    Attached link refers
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/1505411.stm

    The honourable gentlemans point was that just as these labels and trademarks were a product of their era and viewed innocuously, so too was usage of the term “nigger in the woodpile”. By extension, people of that era do not have the strong negative associations to the terms that younger people understand.

    Time has moved on and consigned both to history.I hope this answers your question.

  6. Paul Farrell

    I have just read your article here
    http://anovelspot.wordpress.com/2009/01/14/nigger-in-the-woodpile/

    and to answer the question you posed at the end……

    The honourable gentleman is referring to Robinsons marmalade which used a Golli as its trade symbol for 91 years (1910-2001)before bowing to political correctness pressure and removing it from its labels.

    Attached link refers
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/1505411.stm

    The honourable gentlemans point was that just as these labels and trademarks were a product of their era and viewed innocuously, so too was usage of the term “nigger in the woodpile”. By extension, people of that era do not have the strong negative associations to the terms that younger people understand.

    Time has moved on and consigned both to history.I hope this answers your question.

  7. Your point is well taken, my grandmother is 108 which makes her almost 10 years older than the Golly trade symbol. I had just hoped the oversight didn’t trigger a new interest in its use.

    Thank you for the thoughtful comment.

  8. that racial slang term was used in the pre civil rights days for a white girl having a african american baby.

  9. david yates

    it’s a phrase with a strong effect which makes it ttractive if it does draw attention to maybe unforeseen consequences in some thing rising from an undiscussed matter which for some reason is not talked about for the public would find out about it ??

    what other phrase would have the same force ?

    What’s the equivalent coming from a black standpoint ? Anybody know.

  10. david yates

    what’s the equivalent from a black standpoint

  11. Bruce Dennis

    I don’t think your close friend actually “coined the phrase” — as you explain by quoting the wikipedia article, the phrase likely existed (and thus was “coined”) before your friend was born!

  12. I stand corrected. Nigger in a woodpile is a figure of speech not a phrase. My cousin used the figure of speech she didn’t originate the figure of speech. I think that covers it. Thanks for comment and thanks for editing:)

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