call a spade a spade

The spade in question here is a shovel, not a black person. The phrase means to speak bluntly, without euphemism or delicacy.

The phrase comes to us from Plutarch (c.46-c.120 A.D.), the Greek biographer and essayist, although not in its current form. Plutarch used the phrase to call a bowl a bowl in his Apophthegmata. The Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1467-1536) translated Plutarch and made an error when he came to this phrase. He confused the Greek word for bowl with that for a shovel; in Greek they are very similar, coming from the same root. This was carried into English by Nicholas Udall’s 1542 translation of Erasmus’ work:

Philippus aunswered, that the Macedonians wer feloes of no fyne witte in their termes but altogether grosse, clubbyshe, and rusticall, as they whiche had not the witte to calle a spade by any other name then a spade.

In Britain, the phrase is often rendered to call a spade a bloody shovel. This form dates to at least 1919, when it appeared is W.S. Maugham’s The Moon & Sixpence:

We did not think it hypocritical to draw over our vagaries the curtain of a decent silence. The spade was not invariably called a bloody shovel.

The word spade, meaning shovel, comes from the Old English spadu, which has a root found in many Germanic languages.

The racial epithet, on the other hand, comes from the symbol on a deck of cards. The card suit is from the Italian spada, or sword. The symbol on the playing card is a stylized image of a sword. English use of the card suit name dates to 1598, from John Florio:

Those markes vpon the playing cards called spades.

The derogatory use of spade to refer to an African-American man dates to 1928, in C. McKay’s Home To Harlem:

Jake is such a fool spade. Don’t know how to handle the womens.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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