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.