Final Word

A cuckoo in Proteas woodpile or what?


Has a cuckoo of the sub-species politicos delivered some of its eggs to the nest of the Protea cricket team the night before their World Cup semi-final game against New Zealand?

This question was triggered by accusations doing the rounds on the team’s return to South Africa that there had been political interference in team selection during the night before the crucial game.

The expression ‘there is a cuckoo in the nest’, has a number of meanings. One of these is that it is a reference to a person or something else found in a position where it does not belong. Another is a reference to an unexpected problem, arising suddenly and consuming energy and resources needed for other purposes.

And, yet another, that it is a hint that someone in a particular family is an illegitimate child or somewhat of an intruder who does not really belong there.

The expression derives from the breeding habits, called ‘brood parasitism’, of some European cuckoo sub-species. They do not build their own nests, but lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species, leaving the raising of their young to the unsuspecting hosts.

These cuckoos’ deceptive behaviour has even developed, by picking on specific other species as ‘foster parents’, to the level where their eggs have evolved to resemble the eggs of the hosts, making them difficult to identify. Once hatched, the intruding cuckoos have also been known to kill off their stepbrothers and -sisters.

This behaviour by cuckoos has been known to man since the days of ancient Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Aristophanes. The latter, a renowned comic writer of his time (446 to 386 BC), is the one who gave us the expression “to live in cloud cuckoo land”, in other words, a place that does not really exist. He coined the phrase in his work The Birds.

In this play the character Tereus helps Pisthetairos, meaning “Mr. Trusting”, and Euelpides, meaning “Mr. Hopeful”, erect a perfect city, named Cloud Cuckoo Land in the clouds.

In his 1813 work On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, the renowned German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer used the same basic concept in creating the name Wolkenkuckucksheim.

In the controversy surrounding the alleged interference in the team selection of the Proteas by Cricket South Africa’s CEO, Haroon Lorgat, – if true – both the ‘in the nest’ and the ‘cuckoo land’ expressions would be apt.

And there are indications in the rumours doing the rounds that Mr Lorgat had a breeding partner in the whole affair, the Minister of Sport, Fikile Mbalula, whose bidding he is said to have been doing.

A darker side

There is, however, also a darker side to the whole Protea team selection saga that brings another much less playful and much less polite, sometimes synonymous expression into the equation. It revolves around the use of race quotas in the selection of sport teams – in short, using present-day racism to try and address racism of the past.

This particular expression, although of much later vintage, has been replaced by the earlier cuckoo one after it became unacceptable.

Agatha Christie, in her 1937 novel Dumb Witness, used the phrase A Nigger in the Woodpile as heading for one of its chapters. When later republished in the US as “Poirot Loses a Client”, the particular chapter was also given a new title: “A Cuckoo in the Nest”.

The ‘woodpile’ expression, and its variant ‘a nigger in the fence’, originated in the US in the mid-19th century, a time when the ‘underground railroad’ was flourishing. The ‘underground railroad’ was a network of secret routes and safe houses used by enslaved black people in southern states to escape to ‘free states’ in the north and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and sympathetic allies.

The expression, essentially having the same meaning as the cuckoo nest one, derived from often actual concealment of these escaping slaves under piles of firewood and/or on railroad wagons transporting pulpwood.

Initially the expression at times also took on additional meanings, like being used as reference to a black ancestor in a white family. There is also the more sinister use for something suspicious or wrong, along the same lines as the expression “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”.

In the latter case it is suggested that it was a reference to instances where a black person or persons were secretly killed and buried on particular properties.

The expression was widely used, especially in the US, for about a century, but around the 1960s fell into disuse and is seriously being frowned upon.

This happened mainly because the term ‘nigger’ became increasingly used disparagingly, by the mid 20th century, particularly in the United States as an ambiguously pejorative term – “a common ethnic slur usually directed at black people of Sub-Saharan African descent,” according to Wikipedia.

 Final word

There are two possibilities regarding the events surrounding the selection of the Proteas team for that crucial World Cup semi-final clash and the controversy that followed: Either the story of the ‘cuckoo pair’ is true or someone has started an ugly and malicious rumour.

Whatever the truth, and eventually it will out, even if we have to wait for the still to be written memoirs of someone involved in that game, South African cricket has been done a great disservice. It saddled the team, and more sadly, some individual players, with all the unsavoury ‘woodpile’ baggage.

If there are cuckoos (or a cuckoo) involved, they should, sooner rather than later, fall on their swords or they will face the disgrace of exposure.

by Piet Coetzer

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Final Word

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