Potential racism of "auction block"

Jesse Sheidlower jester at PANIX.COM
Wed Jul 31 03:08:59 UTC 2002

On Tue, Jul 30, 2002 at 11:00:37PM -0400, Baker, John wrote:

> How much support is there for your premise, that "auction
>block" refers specifically to slaves?  I took a quick look at
>the cases.  The earliest use I saw, from 1865, does indeed
>give some support to the slave theory:


>  But the next cite, seven years later, implies that the
> auction block is equally usable for auctioning other types
> of property:


I don't dispute the fact that the phrase has been in use for
some time even in a figurative sense, nor that auctions have
been around for a very long time, as Frank acknowledges. But
my earliest example (which I don't have now, I'm at home) of
the _phrase_ "auction block" is several decades earlier than
1865, and it and other examples seem to suggest that the
phrase was associated with slavery in a more than random way.

I appreciate these earlier figurative examples, but it still
seems to me the phrase arose in connection with slavery, and
I question why this hasn't incited any objection. I should
mention that this was called to my attention by someone who
wrote to OED saying, "Is it true that _auction block_ originally
refers to slavery?" So there's a sense out there, at least
for this one correspondent, that _auction block_ has these
connotations--surely this must be the case for others.

Jesse Sheidlower

More information about the Ads-l mailing list