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Friday, 04 April 2008


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Adam Roberts

Is it that, having finished your dissertation, you no longer feel the urge to add '[my italics]' or '[emphasis added]' to the material you quote? Surely that phrase isn't in italics in the original?

And that leads to me another Jew in the delicatessen: did you actually finish your dissertation? I feel there is some confusion on the subject. Congrats, if so, you know.


Nope, not done. I turned in three revised chapters, now I only need finish the Twain and rewrite the introduction. But I'll be done sooner than later. (The bit above, quoted with my emphasis, as I'll add, was for some i-dotting and t-crossing I'm doing for the intro.)

hermit greg

The author at least has some solid alliterative skill.


Granted the article is from 1980, but back around 2004 we had a dust up at my institution, in which a professor used that phrase in conversation after a departmental seminar. My understanding is that if she had managed to offer a convincing apology to her offended colleague in a timely manner, the subsequent campus wide conversation might have been avoided. (Which, in itself, might or might not have been a good thing. It didn't seem very illuminating to me, but I'm not an undergrad.) As it was she defended her right to what she saw as a harmless colloquialism, until things got to the ugly forced sensitivity training level.
Shortly after the Taxon article's apublication, I remember having deferential but concerned conversations with my grandmother, in which I tried to convince her not to use her colorful term for Brazil nuts and she in turn informed me that little boys don't get to make such requests of their senior relatives. Over the last ten years I've managed to convince my in-laws to at least not use that term in my presence (a courtesy they hadn't previously extended to my wife, but there's an advantage to being an outsider sometimes), though I still hear them catching themselves.
Shorter: Progress is slow and uneven.

John B.

How weirdly serendipitous: In a little piece on Edna Ferber's novel Show Boat that I've been working on, I talk about that very phrase--used appropriately in the novel, I might add, by a Mississippi sheriff expressing certain suspicions regarding the racial composition of some of the Cotton Blossom's "one big happy family."

As you note, there were at least a couple of series lapses in understanding (not to mention judgment) during the production of that text. One has little choice but to wonder and even marvel (though not in a complimentary way).

And: JPool's family sounds like the one I grew up in. But in my daughters and their close friendships with black kids their age (whom they've defended from such language), I also see that slow, uneven progress.


JPool, 2004!?! Unbelievable. Someone emailed me one possible explanation for its presence in the 1980 paper: the author of the article is German, and German-English lexicon's contain entries like this, but a native speaker in 2004!?! And then to defend its usage? Unbelievable.


used appropriately in the novel, I might add

I've already close the laptop today, so I can't access my notes, but a Google Book Search will pull up the relevant entries, but I'm not sure what the appropriate interpretation of the phrase is. I dug around a bit today, and found that in addition to the African-American blood referent, there are three other fairly common uses. The phrase also seems to indicate:

1. You believe something unexpected and bad is about to happen, as when Woodrow Wilson despaired at finding "a nigger in every wood pile" of a declared itinerary.

2. You believe someone has an ulterior motive, e.g. "My father-in-law's got a nigger in his wood pile."

3. Or, most bizarrely, that you're performing charitable services on the sly.

The last one comes, as you might expect, from literature about the Underground Railroad. There were some sentimental novels in which abolitionists would size up a man and wonder whether he has a nigger in his wood pile ... only they meant it literally, as in "Is this person harboring a fugitive slave?" At first I thought it may've been a case of me misreading the first sense -- i.e. the characters were assuming someone of partial black descent might be more sympathetic to the plight of slaves -- but it became apparent that, no, these characters mean the phrase much more literally. I'm not sure what to make of the few books I found in which the phrase was meant as a compliment. (Mostly because it's out of my ken, and I did this when I should've actually been, you know, working on my own stuff.)

John B.

"the African-American blood referent" is the one meant in the Ferber--though, now that you mention it . . . given the immediate context (the "outing" of Julie and Steve as a miscegenated couple), the sheriff might also have had other meanings in mind: the exact quote is, "I kind of smell a nigger in the woodpile here in more ways than one."

Sorry about hijacking the thread here. But: thanks for this.


Hijack? You only spoke to the substance of the post. If this is hijacking, John, I fear the only topical way to respond would be to copypasta the post in the comments. That said:

"I kind of smell a nigger in the woodpile here in more ways than one."

Ha! But in which of those more ways does he mean? The first, second or third? (I really don't know much about Ferber, outside of her connection with Dorothy Parker.)

John B.

I just e-mailed you about all this.

Luther Blissett

Scott, you are so biased against anything but your radical left-wing agenda. You must remember to respect intellectual diversity. Anything less is niggard.

John  Emerson

The only tie I've ever heard the phrase it meant "There's a problem here, but I don't know quite what it is". It was used by a HS chemistry teacher when his equation on the blackboard didn't balance. About the same as "There's something fishy in there".

And it was "woodshed".

The Constructivist

Well, there are a lot of people into cladistics who think it can rescue racial science, but that would be too easy, right?


Interesting discussion: older members of my spouse's family has been known to use the phrase "Indian in the woodpile" referring to the belief that an earlier branch of the family may have had some Native American heritage but that nobody liked to talk about it at the time and definitive records have been lost.

So I was of the opinion that "in the woodpile" referred to something shameful and suspect.


At Emory, the faculty member using the phrase was referring to herself and to other biological anthropologists within a more dominantly cultural anthropology department, and seemed to be using to indicate that they were being treated as a problem to be studiously ignored. Some background can be found here, here and especially here where the confusing nature of the phrase is explored. I was wrong. The kerfuffle strated in 2003, though that doesn't change the dynamic too much.

Karl Steel

I'd never heard the phrase before, and, in all honesty, I translated it in my head to "another Jew in the oven...":i.e., I heard the original phrase as a lynching reference.

Clearly it's not, I guess, but there you go.

Jeremy Young

This thread is long dead, but I've found another reference to this phrase that fits your meaning #2:

"...I have always believed that a vigorous appeal from our government, with an offer to mediate the quarrel, would have had some effect. In any case it would have 'smoked out the nigger in the woodpile' and there would not now be any doubts even in Germany as to who wanted the war and who did not."

Source: Myron T. Herrick, American Ambassador to France 1912-1914, quoted in T. Bentley Mott, Myron Herrick: Friend of France, available here.

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