I'm looking for expressions that are equivalent to

"calling a spade a spade."

In some environments and verbal contexts, this phrase needs to be avoided -- please take my word for it.

Thank you.


I shouldn't have used the gerund in my question. Where I need to use this sort of expression is in a discussion I'm losing patience with, and I want to say, effectively, let's not pussyfoot around with euphemisms. @Tushar Raj's I'm going to tell it like it is, and @undergroundmonorail's Let's not mince words here, both work quite well. Thank you all.

In response to @Pharap,

Do you have evidence that someone has taken offence at this before or is this merely preemptive?

I want to avoid problems. I live in a small town where everybody has their sensitivities. I was once in a hiring committee where a person objected to someone calling one of the candidates a "dark horse." I believe I read that some town in California decided not to use the term "manhole covers" any more because of the "man" syllable.



  • 7
    For those who aren't aware, 'spade' is slang for African-American. It's not as bad sounding as others but is still pejorative.
    – Mitch
    Jun 7, 2015 at 17:08
  • 2
    Somehow I think calling a spade a synonymous expression misses the point.
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 7, 2015 at 18:20
  • 11
    @Mitch - "Most authorities" feel that the "spade" referred to is a digging implement, not an African-American. However, the point is well taken that some may take offense at the phrase.
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 7, 2015 at 18:21
  • 3
    Wikipedia backs up what @HotLicks said: The phrase predates the use of the word "spade" as an ethnic slur against African Americans, which was not recorded until 1928; however, in contemporary U.S. society, the idiom is often avoided due to potential confusion with the slur or confusion with playing card references such as "black as the ace of spades".
    – Tushar Raj
    Jun 7, 2015 at 18:33
  • 9
    I suppose "calling a spade a fucking shovel" won't do. (It's a phrase that was a favorite of one former coworker of mine.)
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 7, 2015 at 21:55

16 Answers 16


These could work:

Telling it like it is

Informal. to be blunt and forthright. [TFD]

Calling it like one sees it

To be honest and unbiased; be deaf to influence [Dictionary.com]


I would probably use "not mincing words".



My choice would be "X knows a hawk from a handsaw (when the wind is southerly)."

The distinction isn't quite as obvious as Hamlet's wording might suggest, since handsaw here refers to hernshaw, a heron. For a lengthier discussion of the hernshaw and of heron-hawking, see James Harting, The Ornithology of Shakespeare (1871).

In any event, at the very least, I would have little confidence that a person who couldn't distinguish a hawk from a handsaw would correctly identify a spade as a spade.

On the other hand, according to Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997), "call a spade a spade" has a less sociologically fraught origin:

call a spade a spade Speak frankly and bluntly, as in You can always trust Mary to call a spade a spade. This term comes from a Greek saying, call a bowl a bowl, that was mistranslated into Latin by Erasmus and came into English in the 1500s.

So, if you like, you can say "X calls a bowl a bowl"—and then explain to your puzzled hearers that you're just correcting Erasmus's little translation error from 500 years ago.

  • I really like "calling a bowl a bowl." Even without the explanation, I think it works. Jul 11, 2015 at 22:58

If the shoe fits, wear it.


  • Richard Pryor (I think) used to say 'If the shit fits'.
    – immutabl
    Jun 8, 2015 at 11:24

You could say it like it is. Alternatively, you could describe the situation as is.


To be honest (without regard for who gets hurt because you are being honest)


In Spain we say 'To call bread to the bread and wine to the wine' or more colloquial 'to bread, bread and to wine, wine', meaning to avoid circumlocutions or the use of smooth euphemisms to say the truth with raw words. So, it is funny that a Spanish guy would reply to your question, about the context in which is used 'spade', saying: to bread, bread and to wine, wine.

  • How is that funny? (I don't get it)
    – Mitch
    Aug 31, 2015 at 23:17
  • Because you said you wanted to avoid this expression is some environments or context. Aug 31, 2015 at 23:23
  • Sorry, Mitch. It wasn't you, but it is mentioned in the beginning of this topic. Aug 31, 2015 at 23:28

The phrase predates the use of the word "spade" as an ethnic slur against African-Americans, which was not recorded until 1928; however, in contemporary U.S. society, the idiom is often avoided due to potential confusion with the slur.

Call'em as you see'em.

Don't mince words.

Cut the bull! Speak plainly.

Call it what it is!


You can say:

  • To call a thing by its proper/right name
  • To "call a spade a spade" is a figure of speech which explicitly calls out something as it is, by its right name. The implication is not to lie about what something is and instead to speak honestly and directly about a topic, specifically topics that others may avoid speaking about due to their sensitivity or the unpleasant or embarrassing nature of the subject.

Source: Encyclo.Co.UK, which in turn cited an outdated Wikipedia article.


A directly analogous non-metaphorical statement would be "call it what it is".


I've always used, "calling it like it is"

  • Let's "get down to the [real] nitty-gritty"



You may formulate your feeling that way:

"As Confucius said, the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name."


I recently found myself with a need to express this idea while talking to a family member in another language. Through that experience, I discovered this simple way of expressing the idea:

Instead of, Let's call a spade a spade, I said (the equivalent of) Let's be clear. One could also say, "Let's be clear about this."


How about the very American phrase "Let's cut to the chase'?

  • 1
    "Let's cut to the chase" means let's not waste time but rather go directly to the heart of the matter. "Calling a spade a spade" means let's call a thing by its well-known name instead of using roundabout or euphemistic language. I think these are different.
    – deadrat
    Oct 4, 2015 at 7:34

If you wanted to be politically right - you could say " as a matter of fact" or "to put things in right perspective"

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