Now that we know how to punctuate the phrase “call a spade a spade” I am curious where it originated and what the original meaning was.

Also, the term “spade” can have negative racial connotations and a friend of mine told me that she thought the phrase did too. I’ve personally never heard it used in a derogatory way, but I figured this was the place to ask.

  • This was a good question. Your friend is correct, about the derogatory use cases though. There are numerous examples in English-language film, usually American, 1960's and 1970's. But that doesn't mean the origin of the phrase, nor its intent was originally derogatory, as the answers all indicate. – Ellie Kesselman Nov 15 '11 at 13:19
  • If the spade of the playing cards has been interpreted that way, then why not the clover? Should we stop using black ink as well? I will never give into the absurdity that anything black can potentially be used in a racist context. If I stopped using the expression (to call a spade a spade) for that reason, I would be condoning such absurdity. It has been butchered enough by Erasmus as it is, we don't need to slay it any further. – user57915 Nov 21 '13 at 11:23
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    Oscar Wilde uses the phrase in his novel "The picture of Dorian Grey" (1890) when the character Lord Henry Wooten remarks: "It is a sad truth, but we have lost the faculty of giving lovely names to things. The man who could call a spade a spade should be compelled to use one. It is the only thing he is fit for." – user58583 Nov 30 '13 at 21:20
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    @AngryBird Clover? What clover? – tchrist Dec 1 '13 at 1:47
  • I've used this phrase so many times in the past I said it today with a friend,a business friend and it occurred to me that it could be taken very wrong. He said nothing, but I apologized. A person we were discussing is of color I was compelled to look up its origins thanks for the work do you do here but I still will discontinue using the phrase I grew up playing lots of cards and I've heard this a hundred times before Times change – user61434 Jan 6 '14 at 19:03

It goes back to at least 1542, so I can confidently say there are no racist origins in the expression.

Apparently it first appeared in English in Nicolas Udall's collection of Erasmus's aphorisms - translated in 1542, but ultimately deriving from Plutarch's Moralia in the first century AD.

It's really just an observation that forthright honest people use straightforward words. I doubt the fact that "a spade" happens to be the common example has any special significance, though that obviously wouldn't have worked for Shakespeare in the related rose by any other name.

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    Then there's the extended version: 'He's the sort of person who calls a spade a bloody shovel.' – Barrie England Nov 15 '11 at 8:22

This is answered fairly clearly by the etymonline entry for spade:

spade (1) "tool for digging," O.E. spadu, from P.Gmc. *spadon [...] from PIE *spe- "long, flat piece of wood" (cf. Gk. spathe "wooden blade, paddle," [...] To call a spade a spade "use blunt language" (1540s) translates a Greek proverb (known to Lucian), ten skaphen skaphen legein "to call a bowl a bowl," but Erasmus mistook Gk. skaphe "trough, bowl" for a derivative of the stem of skaptein "to dig," and the mistake has stuck.

The item before that in etymonline mentions

spade (2) ... Derogatory meaning "black person" is 1928, from the color of the playing card symbol,

an unrelated meaning.

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The origin of the phrase doesn't have any racial connotations (as jwpat7 and FumbleFingers showed), but you should be careful how you use it because of the derogatory meaning of the word spade.

In some situations it would be clear that only the original meaning was intended, but in other situations it might be misinterpreted as wordplay on both expressions.

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    I understand the urge to avoid insensitivity, but I'd prefer to simply use the phrase as (innocently) intended. Taking evasive action might give the racially-inflammatory slang too much credence, IMHO. – CJM Nov 15 '11 at 9:46
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    @CJM: Yes, please use this phrase where appropriate, only avoid it in situations where the racial association already exists. Dont take my answer as niggardly trying to spook you into never using it. ;) – Guffa Nov 15 '11 at 12:33
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    @CJM You can prefer to use the phrase as (innocently) intended. But that doesn't mean it will be interpreted as intended. Guffa makes a good point. But on the other hand, you weren't the one who asked the question originally, so I shouldn't even be chiming in here. – Ellie Kesselman Nov 15 '11 at 13:16
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    Shall we change the name of the gardening tool, as well? – jprete Nov 15 '11 at 13:28
  • @Guffa - Of course, I agree that common sense should prevail - if the context is such that someone might think you were being flippant or insensitive, you would choose different words. – CJM Nov 15 '11 at 13:51

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