The Washington Post’s (August 12) article that came under the headline, “Emperor offers a regal critique of Japan’s drift away from pacifism” wraps up with the following episode:

“Earlier this year, as Merkel visited Japan she gave some veiled advice (to Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe): Saying that Germany was only able to build a good relationship with neighbors by calling “things by their name.”

I’m not able to find the definition of the phrase, “call things by one’s (proper) name" - which is shown in quotes - in English dictionaries at hand, nor by googling.

http://www.goodreads.com.quote cites an axiom, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.” as Confucius’ saying.

Google Ngram shows that the phrase has been current since around 1880.

What does “call things by their name” mean? Does it mean to be straightforward or honest? Is it something like “Call spade a spade”?

Additionally what is the origin of this cliche?

  • 1
    To quote @Tushar Raj at the near-dupe, 'tell it like it is'. Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 9:09
  • "To call things by their own names" has been around for a very long time, much earlier than 1880.
    – TimR
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 11:18
  • 4
    Avoid euphemisms and obscure terminology.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 12:29
  • (Ie.eschew obfuscation.)
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 12:51
  • It's not a cliche, it's an idiom. A cliche means that a phrase is overused.
    – jfa
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 17:21

8 Answers 8


Short and simple, being blunt and speak the truth . Yes it is similar to "Call spade a spade".


Here is Confucius's own exposition, provided via Peter Hitchens:

If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be conducted successfully. When affairs cannot be conducted successfully, propriety will not flourish. When propriety does not flourish, punishments will not be properly meted out. When punishments are not properly meted out, the people will not know how to conduct themselves.’

In the context of relations between Germany and other nations, Merkel is suggesting that frankness and clear speech about contentious issues actually opens a way forward to trust and respect, when compared to an approach of avoiding embarassing subjects for the sake of harmony.


As I searched the quote "The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name." I found its original Chinese is 名正才能言順, which corresponds to the four-character chengyu 名正言順 míng zhèng yán shùn in modern Mandarin. It literally means legitimate name, smooth wording, so it figuratively and actually means "legitimate" or "perfectly justifiable". It's often used to indicate the authenticity of a quality or title someone holds, say, a 名正言順 wife indicates she is the genuine wife of the husband married through a series of customary and legal procedures, a 名正言順 PhD is a title gained through genuine ways, and so on. Although this is in the Chinese context, I think it's also applies in this context.

  • Sadly, we sometimes have to resort to 'contrastive focus reduplication' in this age where even legitimate names have lost their pedigree. Thus 'coffee coffee', not the muck that ... Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 9:11
  • @Ivan H.Jc. It's interesting input. Would you tell me in which chapter of Confucious analects is the Chinese phrase you mentioned included?.I'd like to find the phrase in its original context. Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 9:18
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth My hair was literally literally on fire!
    – ErikE
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 18:26
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    @YoichiOishi: There is an interesting related article in Wikipedia under the heading "Rectification of names." I recall from the work of the Legalist philosopher Han Fei that he put great stress on maintaining clarity and accuracy between the thing named and the name assigned to it; in the Burton Watson translation of Han Fei Tzu that I read, this effort was called "rectification of names."
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 5:58
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    @Sven Yargs. I’m impressed to find the name of Han Fei whose name is known by only select group of connoisseurs of classic Chinese philosophy and political theories today in EL&U site. Han Fei is not so popular in Japan as Confucius, Mengzi, Lao-zi, Chuang-tsu, Sun-tzu and Hsub-tzu, HanFei’s teacher. I've never read any one of his books including “Solitary anger,” “Theory of persuasion,” “Difficulty of persuasion,” “100,000 and more words,” but I know he was the master of logic, communications and persuasion who died a tragic death, through the story of Han Fei in Si-ma Qian’s “History.” Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 1:40

It means to refer to things using the most accurate word, even if it's hurtful, awkward, or uncomfortable, instead of using euphemisms or dancing around the subject.


In regards to the Confucius quote, I think that has more to do with his philosophy, rather than the English phrase. But I'm not an expert.


For the sake of completeness, I feel I should point out that this is not an English phrase as such but rather the literal translation of a German idiom. The German phrase is "die Dinge beim Namen nennen". Some functional translations would be: "to discuss a difficult topic directly" or "to address uncomfortable topics head-on".


The proper name will reflect Aristotle's Four Causes:

Material Cause - the stuff out of which something is made. Formal Cause - the defining characteristics of (e.g., shape) the thing. Final Cause - the purpose of the thing. Efficient Cause - the antecedent condition that brought the thing about.

Key Quote: "How many legs does a dog have if you call it's tail a leg?"

This is an example of an improper name. Abe Lincoln answered this question:

"Four. Calling a tail a leg does not make it a leg."


I think it's a bit different from "calling a spade a spade". It makes me think of how, in a philosophical debate, the two parties should first agree on definitions of relevant key terms. Socialists and Capitalists see and define Socialism and Capitalism differently. So for a socialist and a capitalist to have a productive debate, they first need to agree on neutral, working-definitions of those key terms. The agreed upon definitions would act as scaffolding between the two parties in order to build the bridge during the debate. Without doing so they would be effectively speaking different languages and wholly unable to understand each other.

In order to discover or establish wisdom (the truth), they must first call things by their proper name.


It means you cannot possibly find a solution to any problem if you have not first become aware of and identified it.


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