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A Democratic Party parody, titled "The Nigger in the Woodpile", lampooned what they claimed were Republican efforts to play down the antislavery plank in their 1860 platform. Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln, who had worked as a laborer splitting wooden rails as a young man, is sitting on top of the pile.

A nigger in the woodpile or fence is a figure of speech originating in the United States meaning "some fact of considerable importance that is not disclosed—something suspicious or wrong".[1]

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 racism of the term "nigger". Thus, the phrase has been supplanted by the similar (though not entirely synonymous) phrase "skeletons in the closet" which carries no such connotations.



Both the "fence" and "woodpile" variants developed about the same time in the period of 1840–50,[2] 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.[3][4] Another possible origin comes from the practice of transporting pulpwood on special railroad 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.[citation needed]



An American film comedy titled A Nigger in the Woodpile was released in 1904,[5] 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.[6]

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.[7]

The author Zane Grey's 1921 novel The Mysterious Rider uses the expression at least twice throughout the story to explain a situation in which facts were purposefully omitted.

In the 1930 "pre-code" comedy “Not So Dumb,” Marion Davies consistently and constantly convolutes common idioms and expressions. After finally finding misplaced billiard balls that she had used as darning eggs, she proudly exclaims, “I just knew there was a woodpile in the nigger when I couldn't find 'em.”[citation needed]

A visual gag in the Looney Tunes cartoon "Porky's Railroad" from 1937 refers to the phrase.

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."[8]

In Chapter 3 of Absalom, Absalom William Faulkner uses the phrase when referring to the success of a cotton plantation: “. . .some among his fellow citizens who believed even yet that there was a nigger in the woodpile somewhere." [9]

In the book Your Health: A Corrective System of Exercising that Revolutionizes the Entire Field of Physical Education, by Joseph H. Pilates in 1934, page 18 writes, "This is the 'Nigger in the wood pile'."[10]

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". The phrase was also used by a character in early editions of Christie's novel And Then There Were None (originally released under the title Ten Little Niggers), but was changed in later editions to There's a fly in the ointment. As late as 1952, in the novel They Do It with Mirrors, published in the U.S. as Murder with Mirrors, she has a character use the phrase. It appears in editions published as late as 1985.

W. C. Fields used variations of this phrase in two of his films: In You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939) he said there was "an Ubangi in the fuel supply", and in My Little Chickadee (1940) he said there was "an Ethiopian in the fuel supply".

In the song, "This Could Be True", Pat Kirkwood and Graham Payn sing the phrase in Noël Coward's 1950 musical Ace of Clubs.

Popular western author Louis L'Amour used a variant in Crossfire Trail (1954): "Now there seemed to be a larger African in the woodpile, or several of them."

In 2018 Australian shock jock Alan Jones referred to Mathias Cormann in the context of moves to change the leadership of the Parliamentary Liberal Party, as "the nigger in the woodpile."[11]

In 2018 it was revealed that Irish race car driver and commentator Derek Daly had used the phrase in a radio interview in 1980. He did so while describing how he was the only non-American on his new race team. Once it was revealed, Derek lost his commentator job. His son also lost his sponsor for the weekend.[12]

Contemporary usageEdit

The phrase declined in use during the 20th century, and now the occasional use of this phrase by public figures has often been followed by controversy and apology.[citation needed]

Lord Dixon-SmithEdit

In July 2008, the leader of the British Conservative Party, David Cameron, was urged to sack Conservative peer Lord Dixon-Smith, who said in the House of Lords that concerns about government housing legislation were "the nigger in the woodpile". Dixon-Smith said the phrase had "slipped out without my thinking", and that "It was common parlance when I was younger".[13]

Anne Marie MorrisEdit

In July 2017, the phrase was again used by British Conservative Party politician Anne Marie Morris who said that Brexit without a deal with the European Union was the "real nigger in the woodpile". She later apologised, saying, "The comment was totally unintentional. I apologise unreservedly for any offence caused."[14][15][16] However, she was suspended the same day by the party's chief whip, on the orders of party leader, the prime minister, Theresa May.[17] The Conservative Party whip was restored to Morris on 12 December 2017, one day before a crucial vote on the Brexit process. Although Morris voted with the Conservative Government, the Government was defeated by four votes.[18]

Alan JonesEdit

In 2019, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) ruled that radio station 2GB breached the Commercial Radio Code of Practice when the broadcaster Alan Jones used a "racially charged phrase" during a segment in 2018.[19] ACMA received numerous complaints after Jones used the controversial phrase in August 2018, while discussing the looming second Liberal Party of Australia leadership spill. "The nigger in the woodpile here, if one can use that expression — and I'm not going to yield to people who tell us that certain words in the language are forbidden — the person who's playing hard to get is Mathias Cormann," Jones told listeners. ACMA found that, while the phrase was widely considered racist, its use in the broadcast didn't likely incite "hatred", "serious contempt" or "severe ridicule". 2GB's management agreed the term will not be used on-air again.[citation needed]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Bruce M. Conforth (16 May 2013). African American Folksong and American Cultural Politics: The Lawrence Gellert Story. Scarecrow Press. p. 145. ISBN 978-0-8108-8489-2.
  2. ^ "nigger, n. and adj., §P2" OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017. Web. 11 July 2017.
  3. ^ "nigger, n. and adj., etymology" OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017. Web. 11 July 2017.
  4. ^ "Heavens to Betsy" (1955, Harper & Row) by Charles Earle Funk
  5. ^ Stewart, Jacqueline Najuma (2005). Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 1. ISBN 0-520-23350-6.
  6. ^ Steve Leggett. "Skillet Lickers, Vol. 4: 1929–1930 – The Skillet Lickers – Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards – AllMusic". AllMusic.
  7. ^ Frank, Priscilla (27 May 2015). "One Particularly Upsetting And Racist Dr. Seuss Cartoon Is Heading To Auction". Huff Post.
  8. ^ The Razor's Edge (Vintage International) (Part Seven, Chapter 3, p. 244).
  9. ^ 1897-1962., Faulkner, William, (1993). Absalom, Absalom! : the corrected text (1993 Modern Library ed.). New York: Modern Library. p. 72. ISBN 0679600728. OCLC 28378575.
  10. ^ Pilates, Joseph H., (1934) Your Health: A Corrective System of Exercising that Revolutionizes the Entire Field of Physical Education. Published by Joseph H. Pilates.
  11. ^ Carmody, Broede (23 August 2018). "'We all make mistakes': Jones apologises for using racial slur". The Sydney Morning Herald.
  12. ^ King, Alanis. "Conor Daly Loses Weekend NASCAR Sponsorship After Dad's Reported Use of the N-Word". Jalopnik. Retrieved 25 August 2018.
  13. ^ Lucy Cockcroft (9 July 2008). "David Cameron urged to sack Tory peer after 'nigger in the woodpile' remark – David Cameron is facing calls to sack a Conservative peer who described concerns over government housing legislation as "the nigger in the woodpile" during a House of Lords debate". The Daily Telegraph.
  14. ^ "MP Anne Marie Morris apologises for racist remark". BBC. 10 July 2017.
  15. ^ "Tory Brexiteer describes UK leaving EU without deal as 'real n***** in the woodpile'". 10 July 2017.
  16. ^ "Listen As Tory MP Recorded Saying Brexit No Deal Is A 'N***** In A Woodpile'". 10 July 2017.
  17. ^ "Theresa May orders Tory MP to be suspended after using N-word". The Guardian. 10 July 2017.
  18. ^ Staff writer (12 December 2017). "Anne Marie Morris: Tory MP has whip restored after racist remark". BBC News. Retrieved 12 December 2017.
  19. ^ "Jones used 'racially charged phrase'". ABC News Australia. 29 March 2019.

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