I'm looking for a way to idiomatically express the sentiment that just because you give something a different name, or precede it with a disclaimer, it doesn't change what it is, e.g.:

  • "I mean this as constructive criticism, not an insult, but ..."
  • "I'm not racist, but ..."
  • "With all due respect ..."
  • 1
    Regarding the "if you preface..." aspect of this. What about something like "it doesn't matter how you dress it up, but what you're saying is XYZ" .. type of thing?
    – Fattie
    Aug 25, 2014 at 15:08
  • 11
    I may be misunderstanding, however, the one that came to mind is "call a spade a spade".
    – PatrickT
    Aug 25, 2014 at 17:14
  • 4
    I don't care for the examples given. You're making a blanket assumption that what follows is inherently insulting, racist, or disrespectful, and I don't buy it. As pointed out in the possible dupe the responsibility for the perceived issue isn't only on the speaker. Aug 25, 2014 at 19:12
  • 5
    "I'm not racist, but..." doesn't mean that they're racist. Actually, by accusing them of being racist just because they may use that phrase, you're basically doing what all racist people do! Saying all people of a given race are bad [based off of a few bad experiences]. LOL. The hypocrisy!
    – jay_t55
    Aug 27, 2014 at 4:09
  • 2
    You can't polish a turd ;)
    – Adsy
    Sep 1, 2014 at 11:05

13 Answers 13


A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. [Shakespeare]

(What matters is what something is, not what it is called. [Phrase Finder] )

Possibly inappropriate for an attempted cover-up.

If the focus is on the attempt to disguise what's about to follow,

sugaring the pill


sugar/sweeten the pill (British, American & Australian) also sugar-coat the pill (American)

to [attempt to] make something bad seem less unpleasant The government have cut income tax to sweeten the pill of a tough budget.

[Cambridge Idioms Dictionary, 2nd ed.]

  • 9
    I forget where I heard it, but an alternative is "A rose by any other name would still have thorns."
    – nsayer
    Aug 26, 2014 at 6:10
  • 1
    In Impolite company one might use "A shite by any other name still stinks"
    – Tom Page
    Aug 26, 2014 at 18:53
  • 1
    I hear sugar coating most often Aug 26, 2014 at 19:03
  • 8
    We just call it sugarcoating. If there is one word for what the OP asked, this would be it.
    – ADTC
    Aug 27, 2014 at 23:58
  • @Edwin Ashworth, I enjoyed your answer to this question very much. Since you garnered the most votes for your answer, I would appreciate your opinion on the answer I just posted, which connects via your "sugaring the pill" suggestion. Wish I had been here in August to enjoy this conversation!
    – ScotM
    Dec 23, 2014 at 8:31

"You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig."


Seems perfect for your requirements but perhaps a little too colloquial.

  • 5
    Similar: you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
    – Casey
    Aug 25, 2014 at 18:03
  • Actually, that last one is usually stated backward. You do make a silk purse out of a sows ear. And then some aspect of your presentation challenges anyone to call you on your definition of silk -- your excessive hopefulness, your inveterate poverty, your overblown folksiness etc... So you get away with it. Aug 25, 2014 at 20:59
  • But 'Don't put lipstick on a pig!' is not very colloquial AFAICT, I think it is likely to be understood widely. Aug 26, 2014 at 19:09
  • @JonJayObermark: I don't think i've ever heard it used exactly that way; it sounds kinda odd as a metaphor. The phrase "lipstick on a pig" can still conjure up images of ridiculous fanciness, though, even to people who have never heard the saying. (As long as they know what lipstick and pigs are.)
    – cHao
    Aug 28, 2014 at 14:22
  • Or my own personal favourite version: You can put lipstick on a pulldog, but she’s still Sarah Palin. (Warning: link contains NSFW language and pictures.) Dec 23, 2014 at 11:10

Do you like Shakespeare? If so, how about "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet", or, shorter these days, "A rose is a rose is a rose."

If you're not a big fan of the Bard, consider "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck ...".

Far Side cartoon, "There, hat should clear a few things up around here"

  • 4
    A rose is a rose is a rose is not Shakespeare but Stein. Aug 25, 2014 at 15:11
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth Bacon wrote Robert Shakespeare. William Shakespeare was written by the Earl of Essex. You can tell the difference by the fact that only one of them knew how to spell. Aug 25, 2014 at 18:39
  • 1
    Shakespeare ate Bacon. Aug 25, 2014 at 19:19
  • 1
    The problem here is that the examples he gives do not 'smell sweet', they reek of pretense and evasion instead. Aug 26, 2014 at 19:07
  • 1
    That phrase uses redundancy to reinforce the concept of "it is what it is (what it is)", or out another way, "it isn't anything else" (and implicitly, here, "...*no matter what you call it*").
    – Dan Bron
    Aug 27, 2014 at 11:31

Abraham Lincoln (apocryphally) was fond of asking "How many legs does a horse have, if you call its tail a leg?"

His answer: "Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it one."

  • 3
    Two people who have been mentioned in this thread, Lincoln and Churchill, have notoriously large numbers of quotations attributed to them which are either false, exaggerated, or originate from another source.
    – WS2
    Aug 25, 2014 at 16:19
  • 31
    "You can't believe everything you read on the internet" - Abraham Lincoln... brainguidance.com/abraham-lincoln-quotes-images/… Aug 25, 2014 at 16:23
  • 5
    @stephenbayer Yeah, that's what "apocryphally" means.
    – lily
    Aug 27, 2014 at 3:22
  • 1
    Apparently, Lincoln was quoting an existing phrase and using it to illustrate that calling a man "free" does not make him so. So while he did not coin the phrase, he did use it. Aug 28, 2014 at 21:33
  • 2
    @CarlWitthoft -- It was definitely Twain -- I actually saw his tweet.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 9, 2015 at 21:35

Call a spade a spade.

It has the advantage of being a direct command.

'Spade' is a more specific word for the digging implement most people own, which often called by the less specific word 'shovel' by those unaccustomed to digging (and thus of higher class). It is also very occasionally used to mean 'Black'.

It disparages political correctness, choosing longer words over shorter ones, and speaking class-consciously.

  • I'd be careful against using this in certain places. As the answerer states "It is also very occasionally used to mean 'Black'.". What's not said is that on these occasions it's typically derogatory. Chalk another one up for the minefield that is political correctness.
    – noonand
    Aug 27, 2014 at 15:40
  • Right, but the whole point of the phrases existence, even before it ever had any racial overtone at all, is not to bow to political correctness. Aug 27, 2014 at 15:43
  • Somewhat ironic, I know ;-)
    – noonand
    Aug 27, 2014 at 15:45
  • I kinda thought the "spade" idiom was related to (or derived from) what is done to pet cats and dogs to make them incapable of reproduction. As Bob Barker would say, "Be sure to spay or neuter your pets" (or something to that effect). A person who "tells it like it is," with little if any concern about propriety, would think nothing of saying, "My cat is spayed," as opposed to the more genteel "My cat is fixed," or "My cat is incapable of being fruitful and multiplying"! To the former person, spayed is spayed, so why pussyfoot around (pun kind of intended). Oct 4, 2017 at 1:09

My dear sainted grandmother was very fond of the expression "You can't polish a turd" which is a somewhat vulgar variant of @Okoning's "lipstick on a pig".

Idiomatically, someone who claims that 'they aren't racist but...' could well be accused of "turd polishing..."


My favorite: "A distinction without a difference."

"To-may-to, to-mah-to." (In English the word "tomato" can be pronounced either way, it's the same vegetable fruit berry.)

I'd suggest "terminological inexactitude", but now that I look it up, I find that my idea of its origin was not quite right. Winston Churchill coined it, but I thought he was referring to someone's use of the phrase "protected workers" to describe people who were, plainly, slaves. Used that way it's a beautiful euphemism for a euphemism (you're not calling them slaves, and I'm not calling you a liar). But now I find that he was actually arguing the other way, saying that it's wrong to use "slavery" referring to people who have voluntarily entered a temporary state of paid servitude. (As often happens with quotes, I like the false legend better than the true history.)

There are other expressions and quotations suited to particular kinds of self-contradiction or false disclaimer, e.g. "With all due respect, mind your own damned business.", "The honourable gentleman is a scurvy cur."

  • 3
    +1 Personally, "To-may-to, to-mah-to" is the only suggestion on this page that I would actually use in general conversation (and expect that people know what I mean).
    – wavemode
    Aug 25, 2014 at 17:29
  • 2
    "The honourable gentleman is a scurvy cur." Love it.
    – Charon
    Aug 25, 2014 at 17:39

While you are looking for an idiom, the examples you give seem to be a mild form of apophasis, a form of irony

a rhetorical device wherein the speaker or writer brings up a subject by either denying it, or denying that it should be brought up [Wikipedia]

One of the most famous quotes is that of Shakespeare's Marc Antony

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

Your examples are disingenuous denials.

  • This is one of those times I wish I could forfeit upvotes on 10 other answers so I could upvote one answer (this one) ten times.
    – Dan Bron
    Aug 25, 2014 at 21:02
  • This is more procatalepsis than paralipsis/apophasis. The former refutes an objection in advance, the latter means to draw attention to the very thing it ostensibly excludes from discussion.
    – pilcrow
    Aug 26, 2014 at 16:47
  • @pilcrow I like it! Make it an answer.
    – bib
    Aug 26, 2014 at 17:17
  • @bib, you got it!
    – pilcrow
    Aug 26, 2014 at 17:36
  • @jmoreno, that's not how bounties work.
    – Dan Bron
    Aug 31, 2014 at 21:44

I see a couple of people mentioned Shakespeare, but if you want to quote Shakespeare you should say "What's in a name? A rose by any other word would smell as sweet." If you say "by any other name" you're quoting one of his folio editor's mistakes.

There are a number of animals that have been used for these sort of metaphors that are in in some cases idioms. The oldest is derived from the Bible (changing one's skin/spots/stripes). There are a number of expressions related to pigs tracing back to the 16th century, but picking up variety in the 1900s American rural communities and recently adopted by a number of politicians. There is a famous expression related to ducks which began with the anti-communist fever in the post-war 1940s (despite a typical misleading reference from Wikopedia). Finally there are animals which the smell of indicates detecting deception or falsehood, like smelling a rat or fish.


1) “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?” (Jeremiah 13:23)

2) "the tiger cannot change its stripes"

3) "a zebra cannot change its stripes"

sources include: The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary


1) "You can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear" (from mid 16th century)

2) "A hog in armour is still but a hog" (Thomas Fuller 1732)

3) "A hog in a silk waistcoat is still a hog" (Charles H. Spurgeon in his 1887 compendium of proverbs, The Salt-Cellars)

4) "You can educate a pig but all you get is an educated pig" (I heard this old phrase used in Texas)

5) "Never try to teach a pig to sing - it wastes your time and annoys the pig." (Robert A. Heinlein's 1973 novel Time Enough for Love)

6) "like putting lipstick on a pig" (Washington Post 1985)

7) "put lipstick on a hog and call it a princess" (Ann Richards 1991)

8) "You can put lipstick on a hog and call it Monique, but it is still a pig" (Ann Richards 1992)

9) "You can put lipstick on a pig but it's still a pig" (Barrack Obama 2008)

10) "Just weighing a pig doesn't fatten it" (Barrack Obama 2009, which he said he heard in Illinois rural communities)

Sources include: Slate and PiFactoryBlog


"when I see a bird that quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, has feathers and webbed feet and associates with ducks—I’m certainly going to assumer that he IS a duck." (Emil Mazey 1946)

"When someone walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, he’s a duck." (James Carey 1948)

"When you see a bird that looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck." (attributed to Walter Winchell 1951)

Source include: barrypopik.com

smell a fish/rat/fault

1) "Do you smell a fault?" (King Lear)

2) "smell a rat" (June 1851 in the County Courts Chronicle newspaper)

"Two other cases the witness mentioned, in the first of which he alleged that the judge, in reference to an insufficiency of evidence said, 'I smell a rat; I don't believe the defendant or her witness.'"

3) "smells fishy"

sources include: knowyourphrase.com

  • LOL! I agee. Thanks for pointing this out and I corrected the spelling from small to smell. I am not the world's greatest typist.
    – Brillig
    Aug 27, 2014 at 14:03

Don't spit on my cupcakes and call it frosting!

Your spit is not icing, and I won't let you convince me it is!

  • She says: I mean this as constructive criticism, not an insult, but ...
    You feel: Did she just insult me and try to call it "constructive criticism?"
  • He says: I'm not racist, but ...
    You feel: Did he just make a racist comment and try to call it "not racist?"
  • He says: With all due respect ...
    You feel: Did she just disrespect me and try to call it "all due respect?"

In all three situations, the appropriate response is to draw attention to their disingenuous labeling: Don't spit on my cupcakes and call it frosting! Right here in 2011, AlexG offered an excellent explanation of that idiom in its various iterations, showing that it satisfies this query perfectly. In summary:

The nuance of the expression is that something bad is being presented as something good, and the speaker is aware of this.

Various images have employed this of this formula for an entire generation:

  1. In 1976, Clint Eastwood starred in the movie, Outlaw Josey Wales. He delivered a few of his signature zingers in that movie, but John Vernon, who played Fletcher, delivered a most memorable line. The link plays, better than the lines read.

Senator: The war's over. Our side won the war. Now we must busy ourselves winning the peace...

Fletcher: There's another old saying, Senator: Don't piss down my back and tell me it's raining.

It's not sweet rain; it's vile piss! Applying Fletcher's sentiment to the OP's examples:

  • Don't piss on me with insults and call it the rain of constructive criticism!
  • Don't piss on me with racist remarks and say your not a racist!
  • Don't piss on me with contempt and call it the rain of all due respect!

The are multiple iterations of the image.
Don't piss/pee on/down/in . my:

  • boots...
  • leg...
  • back...
  • head...
  • ear...
  • face...

and tell me it's raining."

  1. I'm comfortable with that word picture as it is, but pop singer Rudy D'Agostino softened the blow by singing:

Don't spit in my face and tell me it's raining.

  1. Finally, the ever articulate Judge Judy transformed it to:

"Don't spit on my cupcakes and call it frosting."

It's not sweet; it's disgusting! In view of the OP's particular examples, I believe the image of sweetness would work best.

"Don't spit on my cupcakes and call it frosting."

But you can decide what works best for you.

  • These may well be appropriate repartees, but that's not exactly what OP asked for ('a way to idiomatically express the sentiment that just because you give something a different name, or precede it with a disclaimer, it doesn't change what it is'). Dec 23, 2014 at 9:58

This is procatalepsis, the refuting of anticipated objections, according to Brigham Young's excellent Silva Rhetoricae.

In the examples given by the OP, the refutations are quite crude — really just ad lapidem — but I think this rhetorical figure fits the bill.


The one I have heard that I use in the right company only is:

You can't make chicken salad out of chicken shit.


Has anyone mentioned:

No matter what...

As in..

No matter what you say xyz is still true...


xyz is still true, no matter what you say

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.