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(See also SKEPTICISM.)
flea in the ear See IRRITATION.
nigger in the woodpile Something suspicious, such as an undisclosed fact, hidden element, or ulterior motive. This expression sprang up during the era of slavery in the United States, most specifically in regard to the Underground Railroad, a system whereby abolitionists aided runaway slaves, often concealing them through any expedient—one of which was a woodpile. The phrase first appeared in print in 1852; though the expression has from long figurative use lost its direct association with Blacks, the offensiveness still carried by the word nigger inhibits the phrase’s use in contemporary speech and writing and may well signal its demise from the language.
Like a great many others ignorant of facts, he finds “a nigger in the wood pile” when there is neither wood pile nor nigger. (Congressional Record, February, 1897)
smell a rat To instinctively sense evil, treachery, or wrongdoing; to be suspicious. A cat has a keen sense of smell which enables it to detect an unseen rat. The phrase is quite common in the United States and Great Britain.
I asked her so many questions, that, though a woman ignorant enough, she began to smell a rat. (William R. Chetwood, Voyages of W.O.G. Vaughan, 1736)
something rotten in Denmark An expression used to describe a suspected problem which cannot be pinpointed; something of a questionable or suspicious nature; anything that disconcerts and instills anxiety. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Marcellus is uneasy because the ghost of Hamlet’s father had appeared to him. He sees this as a portent and conjectures to Horatio:
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. (I, iv)