I hesitated to write about this figurative expression/idiom, but decided to as people who are not familiar with the English language and phrases/idioms we use in this country may come across this expression and use it, not knowing it has a dual meaning where one is understood in a derogatory sense. I feel it should be addressed and understood.
Originally, this phrase was translated from the 1st Century writing of the Greek scholar Plutarch titled Moralia, which loosely translates as Morals or Manners. (Keep this in mind as I explain.) Moralia was first translated from Greek around 1542, and the Stephanus edition came out in 1572 where the essays were divided into 14 books. Just to name a few of the essays: On the Education of Children, On Vice and Virtue, On Brotherly Love, and On Evil and Hate. There is a total of 78 essays of this sort.
When the translation took place, the translator, Nicolas Udall, replaced the original “trough” and “fig” with “spade”. Ah, how and why words change through the years continues!
From then — 16th century — to the 1920s, the phrase “call a spade a spade” meant to speak frankly, tell it like it is.
This is the only meaning I knew of the idiom. I never knew it could have a sinister meaning until I started investigating this idiom. My family is not in the business of using derogatory remarks nor hurting people, so the use of this phrase in a derogatory sense was never taught to me.
And I have used the term for years when I knew someone who was blunt in explanation, who pulled no punches in speaking the truth, who said things as they really are. I like those people. There are no guessing about what that person means while telling what they like or dislike. My parents had one neighbor who spoke this way, and I always characterized her by saying she called a spade a spade. I knew exactly what she meant.
Now, fast forward to the 1920s, to the Harlem Renaissance, and now “spade” became a code word for the black person. It first appeared in Claude McKay’s 1928 novel, Home to Harlem. Okay, McKay now has expanded the shovel/spade to refer to a skin color. And in so doing, the word “spade” became offensive, which in turn is the phrase, “call a spade a spade”.
I am not in the business of hurting anyone’s feelings, so anyone who is trying to learn our language with all its idioms and double meanings, I strongly suggest to scratch this idiom off your list. Do not use. Me. I know I will double check my writing to not have this idiom included in my writing unless if it is doubly clear that it refers to someone speaking frankly, telling it like it is. And that is easier to do on paper than with oral words.
Now, back to Plutarch’s Moralia. I believe I have Plutarch in my library and I need to read what he said all those years ago. Isn’t it ironic that in the beginning he wrote about Brotherly Love and On Evil and Hate, and somehow through his words and through the years the trough, shovel has evolved into a derogatory phrase that covers (or not) Brotherly Love, Evil and Hate?
A lot to chew on…