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What Does It Mean to "Call a Spade a Spade"?

By Jessica Reed
Updated May 23, 2024
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To "call a spade a spade" is a phrase meaning to speak bluntly or frankly about a subject and often refers to a topic that is embarrassing in nature and no one wants to address. An employee pointing out that a fellow employee is acting rudely when no one else wants to say it upfront is one example of what it means for a person to call a spade a spade. Though some people think the phrase has a racist meaning behind it — since "spade" was once used as a derogatory term for African Americans — and take offense at its use, the phrase has never been linked to any racist intent and the word was originally intended to refer to a digging tool.

Origins of the phrase date back to ancient Greece. Greek historian and writer Plutarch wrote Apophthegmata Laconica, which contains a phrase that can be translated as meaning "calling a fig a fig, and a trough a trough." Yet in the original attempts at translation, the word "skafe" was translated to a shovel or spade by the scholar Erasmus, even though its true meaning is trough or basin. The phrase first appeared in English writing when a line of Eramus's work was translated by Nicolas Udall as, "to call a spade by any other name then a spade."

Phrases such as to "call a spade a spade" are examples of idioms, or English sayings. Idioms are phrases that have meaning to a certain group but do not make sense if translated literally, or word for word. To "call a spade a spade" does not mean anything without the context behind it. Those who have heard the phrase know it means to speak bluntly and openly about a subject, but without this knowledge the words seem confusing or repetitive. Other popular idioms include phrases such as "raining cats and dogs" and "to have a chip on your shoulder."

Other forms of the idiom to "call a spade a spade" include translation into a phrase such as "to call a spade a shovel." The phrase comes long before any references to "spade" were used as racial slurs. This derogatory use of the word appeared around 1928, long after the original translations. Yet, due to the fact that some people do not know the history of the phrase and consider it offensive, some writers and speakers may choose to avoid it to prevent causing unintentional insult to their audiences.

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Discussion Comments
By Maorigirl — On Apr 07, 2013

"Kia ora," although the term was used once as a racist term against people of color by white people and was also known as a racist term against Maori by Pakeha (White man). Why would we be called uninformed or ignorant because we don't accept the white origin of the word?

It's difficult to be in a position where we are the ones subjected to the racism through use of the word by white people and never be able to do anything about it. Please help me understand. In New Zealand, we have a race relations commissioner who has used the term to call a spade a spade as her best attribute for the role of race relations with the Human Rights Commission. She has made many racist statements about the Maori and black South Africans through her lack of knowledge about Apartheid and Maori history. And this is accepted. Why?

As Maori, why use terms that we have always known are racist, regardless of the history of the word "spade." It's the history of the oppressor who uses it against us, no matter how small the event was that made it a racist slight.

For all those who suffer racism at the hands of white people, there will never be any justice if we are forced to accept the white man's version of history. "He tino pouri ahau, he tini nga roimata o Ranginui nga marae oku tupuna." My sadness rains over me like the tears of my sky father to wash the pain of my ancestors. Please help me understand.

By anon328987 — On Apr 07, 2013

So does this mean a Black person would have no basis in saying the term is racist because it was only used once against black people by white people?

Would a Black person just have to accept the white history and origins of the word as not racist and have to accept a white person using the term, regardless?

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