Calling a Spade a Spade

(Originally published at, Transracial / Transcultural Adoption, November 30th, 2009)

English Dictionary

At the end of October, the article “Pregnant Woman Requests All White Delivery Staff” caught my eye. After reading it, I knew I had to blog about it. Not for the content of the article – I mean, come on, Racism Exists in America, News at 11 – but for the comments.

 The article’s author wrote: “I hate to cry racism at every turn, but let’s call a spade a spade.”

Then, this comment came in: “I think it’s funny that in your post about not being a racist you use a racist term–to ‘call a spade a spade’ has its roots in anti-black sentiment.”

When I read that, I was pretty sure the commentator  was incorrect. I always thought the phrase “to call a spade a spade” had something to do with the gardening implement. Indeed, I was right!

The phrase “to call a spade a spade” means to speak plainly and honestly. There’s some controversy over which Greek man first wrote the statement, but it is clear that the phrase in English dates back to at least 1542, when Nicolas Udall translated a work by Erasmus. Erasmus apparently mis-translated a work by Plutarch or Aristophanes. In Greek, the phrase may date back as far as 423 BC.

The word “spade” as a derogatory term for a black person originated in the US, circa 1928. It refers to the playing card symbol, “as black as the ace of spades.”

More comments on the article followed:

“Call a spade a spade” is a racist saying by the way. ~ Ali

The “spade” reference does not have its roots in anti-black sentiment. One might want to avoid it due to the misunderstanding that it does, though. Spend a few minutes looking up what you’ve “heard” before making snarky comments. ~ JM

Actually folks, that phrase does not have racist origins. It’s been around a lot lot lot longer than the use of the word “spade” as a racial slur. The racist one refers to the color of spades in playing cards, this one is from the greek and refers to the shovel. ~ BettyWu

Just writing to support bettywu in saying “calling a spade a spade” predates the racial use of the term, and should not be considered racist. ~ Comstock

The comments took a turn:

As for the “spade a spade” I breathed one of those heavy sighs because I just knew it was going to become the focus of conversation. Bettywu is correct though, the term’s origins do predate it’s racist usage. I would disagree with Comstock, though. Most people aren’t interested in etymology, and language is a constantly evolving thing. Holding tight to the “but, it’s technically correct!!” argument ain’t going to work in the face of people who, as they know the term, as a racial epithet. ~ Miss Scorpio

That annoyed me. I love language. I do my best to use it correctly – sometimes so correctly, it bothers people. I shouldn’t use a term because people might think it’s racist? Grr… This isn’t “Jew down”, which does stem from the misguided belief that Jewish people are overly concerned with money.

“Eric” agreed with me:

I just cannot go along with the ‘Holding tight to the “but, it’s technically correct!!” argument ain’t going to work in the face of people who, as they know the term, as a racial epithet’ Its like the use of the word niggardly. It doesn’t have anything to do with black people and never has. People have lost their jobs over using that word, simply because other people are too stupid to know its meaning. I refuse to change my language because people don’t know the meaning of words or phrases, yet feel free to accuse me of racism.

 It’s not like I go around saying, “Let’s call a spade a spade”. But on the off chance that I do want to say it, I should be able to do so without fear of retribution. The English language is so beleaguered these days. Nobody knows when to use “it’s” vs. “its” or “your” vs. “you’re” and forget about the possessive apostrophe s as opposed to the plural s or es. Now more language is being taken away?