[Ads-l] That Woodpile

Mon Jul 10 23:30:14 UTC 2017

A British Member of Parliament is in trouble for using the phrase "nigger in the woodpile," as discussed on Language Log, http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=33594.  The OED traces this to 1852 and suggests it may derive from an Underground Railroad incident involving the use of woodpiles to conceal escaping slaves.

I can antedate the expression to a letter dated 12/31/1844 and printed in the Cleveland Herald on 1/4/1845 (Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers):  "The singular tenacity, and suspicious action of those urging this gratuity to the Trust Company, leave but little doubt as to the location of the "nigger in the wood pile."  [para] This may be pronounced _coarse_ language, but it is not used for personal application.  It is high time that plain language should be spoken . . . ."

As to the origin, the Underground Railroad incident seems unlikely.  If it came from such a historical incident (in Pultneyville, N.Y., no less, some distance from the early uses in the Midwest and South), you would think we would see early references to the incident in the written record, and we don't, at least not with any frequency.  I tend to think that instead it may have come from a song.  The OED indeed quotes a similar line, "Nigger on de wood-pile barkin like a dog," although that's not quite the phrase and it's only one line in a song not otherwise devoted to the subject (see full text at https://books.google.com/books?id=lCMz1dQjqrgC&pg=PA63).

There does appear to have been a song with this title.  From the Vicksburg Tri-Weekly Sentinel on 8/26/1844 (Newspapers.com):  "They now commenced howling with increased vigor to the tune of "The Texas Chicken," "Nigger in the Woodpile," "Polk root Pisin," "Sugar in the Gourd," "Oh, git along Home," and other ditties equally chaste and classic . . . ."

An undated advertisement for Frank Brower's Black Diamond Songster mentions "Nigger Under de Woodpile" as one of its songs; Google Books gives the publication date as 1863, even though it does not provide the book's text.  Youtube has a couple of old songs named "Nigger in the Woodpile."

John Baker

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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