Potential racism of "auction block"

Jesse Sheidlower jester at PANIX.COM
Wed Jul 31 02:01:38 UTC 2002

The expression "auction block" originally refers to the block on
which slaves stood when they were sold. This sense dates back to
the mid-nineteenth century, at least. The earliest example I've
seen of the figurative sense 'the open market' or some such, as
in "MegaCorp is putting their Foobar division on the auction
block," is from the 1940s or so.

I've never heard any objection to the free use of this phrase,
and I'm wondering if I've missed this, or if no one has
objected to it. As we know, there are periodic objections to
words or expressions of innocent origin--"picnic",
"niggardly", "nitty-gritty", "call a spade a spade"--because
of their incorrectly assumed racial origins. But here we have
something that is genuinely a slave term, but has passed
largely unnoticed.


Jesse Sheidlower

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