Thursday, August 19, 2010

Origin: To call a spade a spade



I had been looking up something for the current  Bytes posting when I came across the history of the phrase "to call a spade a spade."   I was obliged to leave that item, and my computer, to keep an appointment with Byters Philip and Enid.  Funnily enough, just after meeting, Philip used the phrase in conversation.

The expression means to speak honestly and directly about a topic, specifically topics that others may avoid speaking about due to their sensitivity or embarrassing nature.

Our modern use of the phrase gives a direct link back to Erasmus (1466-1536) and before that to the ancient Greeks.

The Greeks used the expression "to call a fig a fig and a trough a trough" (sometimes the word "basin" is used instead of the word "trough).  The expression is first recorded  in Aristophanes play "The Clouds" (423 BC) and it has also been used by writers such as Plutarch.  Some commentators believe that the fig and the trough were also sexual symbols.

When Erasmus translated the works of Plutarch, he confused Plutarch's "trough" (skaphe) with the Greek word for "digging tool" (skapheion). As a result the phrase became "to call a spade a spade."

The phrase "to call a spade a bloody shovel" is first recorded in 1919.  Later the expression became "to call a spade a fucking shovel", the implication being that the person so described is without manners or class, that he (or she) has progresed beyong forthrightness to boorishness.

The derogatory expression of "spade" for black person is first recorded in 1928 and comes not from a digging implement but from the suit in a deck of cards, as in "he is as black as the Ace of Spades".

Because of that derogatory association, even though the original phrase had nothing to do with race, many persons now avoid use of the word.  Because of unfavourable racial connotations, some writers and commentators have recommended discontinuance of the words niggardly, "a chink in his armor" and "a nip in the air", even though there was no association with race in the original use of those words.

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