Having a nigger in the woodpile and a skeleton in the closet are closely related problems, although subtly different. In the first case it is a problem which is lurking, hitherto unseen, but which may pop up very soon to cause mayhem and mischief. In the second case it is a problem which has been hidden from public gaze quite deliberately but which may yet emerge, clanking and rattling, to ruin one’s life.
Both terms are capable of giving grave offence. The first because it probably dates from the time at which some white people enslaved some black people (about 150 years, give or take), as opposed to the time when black people enslaved black people (about 2,000 years, give or take). It has that very bad word in it, a pejorative word, which can cause hurt and anguish. People of colour understandably object to this phrase, even if it has long been separated from its original meaning.
The phrase ‘skeleton in the closet’ is, of course, offensive to Britain’s community of fleshless beings, or ‘people of bone’ as they prefer to be called these days. Why pick on a skeleton, they argue, while also objecting to the term ‘skeleton’ itself, which has negative connotations relating to the undead, etc. ‘It is a common and hurtful misapprehension that we “rattle”, anyway,’ a spokesman for the Advancement of Unfleshed Peoples (AUP) told me. ‘We may joke about this rattling among ourselves and even use the word skeleton from time to time. As in, “yo, skeleton bro, how you hangin’? Loose?” But that’s because we’ve reclaimed the terminologies. They are not for the likes of you to use. You people with flesh, who have cultural hegemony and economic power.’
The term ‘nigger in the woodpile’ is not racist. It may have historical racist connotations and contain an unpleasant word, but it is not itself racist per se, unless the person using it means it to be. I have a woodpile next to my garage. If I saw a black person hiding there and said, appalled: ‘Look, there’s a nigger in the woodpile!’, that would be racist and deeply offensive.
But let us be modern and thoughtful about this. As we know from Derrida et al, there is no one-to-one relationship between a word and its meaning. And the meaning changes synchronically as well as diachronically. To use a phrase which has been in circulation for 200 years and has thus lost, to the user, its original offensiveness, is not an act of racism — no matter what the likes of the shrill idiot Owen Jones might have to say.
The Conservative MP Anne Marie Morris, who may or may not be as thick as a block of Cathedral City cheddar cheese, was not being racist when she used the term. She simply grasped for a phrase to express a particular notion she had and meant no racist slight whatsoever. Should she even have apologised when her terminology was revealed to a gleefully vicious social media and a broken, supine Prime Minister? I think, in a perfect world, probably not. Any more than Jay-Z and every other rapper under the sun should apologise for using it in their lamentable, tuneless diatribes. White liberals who object to Morris but sanction the likes of Niggaz With Attitude are basically the pot calling the kettle black, if that’s still an acceptable term. Which it probably isn’t. For Morris, it was much like using the phrase ‘hoist by her own petard’, which has also lost its original meaning and now just means ‘Theresa May’. While eviscerating Morris, the Guardian attempted to suggest she had form by pointing out that her agent had blamed mass immigration for the pressure on schools in her constituency, rather than this pressure being the consequence of that horrible thing ‘cuts’, which are responsible for all the evils in the world, of course, known and unknown. Morris, the paper said, had immediately repudiated her agent’s off-the-cuff observations, presumably in a state of blind panic.
What a magnificent irony. Education spending is higher than it has ever been and is a greater proportion of net public expenditure than in almost any developed country. Our birth rate has not risen, except among immigrant families. And so there is only one possible cause of increased pressure on schools — enormous and continual immigration, running at some 300,000 people per year, and the higher birth rate among immigrant families. In other words, what her agent had to say was indisputably correct, beyond all possibility of doubt. And yet it was also deemed unsayable and quite beyond the pale. The truth, then, is just as unsayable as ‘nigger in the woodpile’.
This all made me feel a little bit better about Mrs Morris’s current state of discomfort and her suspension from the Conservative whip. What goes around comes around, Anne-Marie, unless you have a spine and a soupçon of integrity.
Next week I propose we discuss the word ‘niggardly’. As in: ‘this year’s grant to the excellent campaigning organisation Black Lives Matter was niggardly, to say the least. How many flights will they be able to disrupt henceforth?’ Meaning parsimonious or mean. No etymological connection whatsoever with the very bad word — it comes instead from the Old Norse verb ‘nigla’, which means to fuss about small matters. And from which we get the word ‘niggle’. And yet niggardly, too, has caused furore in the past, because of its phonetic similarity to the aforementioned very bad word. If you are determined to be outraged and offended, then you will leap on niggardly with a sort of euphoria, and accuse whoever uses it of racism. Because you are driven and demented, I’d suggest.