phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at

Home | Search the website Search | Discussion Forum Home|

N-word in a woodpile

Posted by ESC on October 19, 2000

In Reply to: Origin of phrase posted by Amy on October 19, 2000

: Please e-mail me the origin of "a [n-word] in a woodpile" and the meaning.

A NIGGER 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." ".nigger 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).

This next bit of information should go without saying, but just so we're all clear on the subject, I am including it:

"NIGGER, N-WORD - When used by a white person to describe a black or African-American person, this is probably the most offensive hateful, hurtful term in the language today. Like Negro, the word derives ultimately from the Latin 'niger,' black. It is not an Americanism, the first recorded use of 'nigger' being in a 1786 poem by Robert Burns, although variations on it, including 'negar', 'neger,'; and 'niger' are recorded before then. Though African-Americans do commonly use the word in different ways amongst themselves.blacks rarely if ever do so in the presence of whites. Since the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995, when evidence of its use by a detective-witness was introduced, it often has been euphemistically called the N-word.Once commonly used expressions such as 'a [n-word] in the woodpile' (concealed but important information, a 'catch' in a situation) are rarely heard today." From "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997) Lord, if that were only so.