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N-word in the woodpile

Posted by ESC on January 05, 2004

I came across a new, darker take on the phrase "n*gger in the woodpile." See the information in the last three paragraphs.

N*GGER IN THE WOODPILE (OR FENCE) - "Some fact of considerable importance that is not disclosed; something suspicious or wrong; something rotten in Denmark. The sayings with 'fence' and 'woodpile' developed about the same time and about at the period 1840-50, when the 'Underground Railroad' was flourishing successfully. Evidence is slight, but because early uses of the expressions occurred in Northern states, it is presumable that they derived from actual instances of the surreptitious concealment of fugitive Negroes in their flight north through Ohio or Pennsylvania to Canada under piles of firewood or within hiding places in stone fences." From "Heavens to Betsy" (1955, Harper & Row) by Charles Earle Funk. A second reference agrees with the time period when this expression "appeared." ".n*gger in the woodpile, a catch or hitch in a situation, a flaw, dates from 1852." From "I Hear America Talking" by Stuart Berg Flexner (Von Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York, 1976).

A third source, a novel, indicates that meaning has to do with a black person being killed and buried on a property:

"One time I told Will (that) Fox Run was a beautiful place. He said, 'Don't let it fool you. All these places got a n*gger in the woodpile.' I wasn't sure what he meant, though.' He tilted his head inquisitively, waiting for me to speak, as if somehow we were old friends.

'So Vidrine repeated a racist remark that confirms what you already knew,' Helen said in her office an hour later, 'Maybe a convict was killed on the LeJeune plantation fifty years ago. Or maybe not. We didn't find a body, bwana.'..." From "Last Car to Elysian Fields" by James Lee Burke (2003 Simon & Schuster, New York), Page 262.