Call a spade a spade

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

"Call a spade a spade" is a figurative expression. It is also referred to as "let's call a spade a spade, not a gardening tool", which refers to calling something "as it is",[1] that is, by its right or proper name, without "beating about the bush"—being outspoken about it, truthfully, frankly, and directly, even to the point of being blunt or rude, and even if the subject is considered coarse, impolite, or unpleasant.

The idiom originates in the classical Greek of Plutarch's Apophthegmata Laconica, and was introduced into the English language in 1542 in Nicolas Udall's translation of the Apophthegmes, where Erasmus had seemingly replaced Plutarch's images of "trough" and "fig" with the more familiar "spade." The idiom has appeared in many literary and popular works, including those of Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson,[2] W. Somerset Maugham, and Jonathan Swift.


"Call a spade a spade" or "call a spade a shovel" are both forms of the figurative expression which state that the speaker should call, or has called, a noun by its most suitable name without any reservation to the strained formalities that may result.[1][3][4] The implication is telling the truth regarding the nature of the thing in question,[5] speaking frankly and directly about it,[3][4] even if it is considered coarse, impolite, or unpleasant.[5][3][4] Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines it in 1913 as being "outspoken, blunt, even to the point of rudeness", adding that it implies calling "things by their proper names without any 'beating about the bush'".[6]


Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable in 1913,[6] provides a definition largely consistent with contemporary English usage in the early 21st century.[5][3][4] The Oxford English Dictionary records a forceful, obscene variant, "to call a spade a bloody shovel", attested since 1919.[7]

The phrase appears in Joseph Devlin's book How to Speak and Write Correctly (1910), where he satirized speakers who chose their words to show superiority: "For instance, you may not want to call a spade a spade. You may prefer to call it a spatulous device for abrading the surface of the soil. Better, however, to stick to the old familiar, simple name that your grandfather called it."[8] Oscar Wilde uses the phrase in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), when the character Lord Henry Wotton 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."[9] Wilde uses it again in The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).[10] Other authors who have used it in their works include Charles Dickens and W. Somerset Maugham.[11]

The phrase predates the use of the word "spade" as an ethnic slur against African Americans,[11] which was not recorded until 1928; however, in contemporary U.S. society, the idiom is often avoided due to potential confusion with the slur.[12]

The equivalent expression in Spanish-speaking countries is "a llamar al pan pan, y al vino vino", which translates as "to call bread bread, and to call wine wine". The equivalent in French-speaking countries is "appeler un chat, un chat", which translates as "to call a cat a cat".


The ultimate source of this idiom is a phrase in Plutarch's Apophthegmata Laconica:'τὴν σκάφην σκάφην λέγοντας (tēn skaphēn skaphēn legontas).[13] The word σκαφη (skaphe) means "basin, or trough."[14] Lucian De Hist. Conscr. (41) has τα συκα συκα, την σκαφην δε σκαφην ονομασων (ta suka suka, ten skaphen de skaphen onomason),[15] "calling a fig a fig, and a trough a trough".

Erasmus translated Plutarch's σκαφην (skaphe), as if from σπάθη (spáthe), as ligo "shovel" in his Apophthegmatum opus. Lakshmi Gandhi speculates that the introduction of the word "shovel" may have been a conscious, dramatic choice rather than a mistranslation.[11]

The phrase was introduced to English in 1542 in Nicolas Udall's translation of Erasmus' work, Apophthegmes, that is to saie, prompte saiynges. First gathered by Erasmus, as follows:[11]

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 than a spade.

In the expression, the word spade refers to the instrument used to move earth, a very common tool.[11] The same word was used in England, Denmark, Sweden and in the Netherlands,[16] Erasmus' country of origin.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Martin, Gary. "'Call a spade a spade' - the meaning and origin of this phrase". Phrasefinder.
  2. ^ "EMERSON - ESSAYS - PRUDENCE". Retrieved 2020-04-04.
  3. ^ a b c d Merriam-Webster (2003). "Spade; To call a spade a spade". Merriam-Webster's Collegiate® Dictionary (11th ed.). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster. ISBN 0877798079. Retrieved October 29, 2015.
  4. ^ a b c d McGraw-Hill (2002). "Spade; To call a spade a spade". In Spears, Richard (ed.). McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. New York, NY: McGraw Hill Professional. ISBN 0071435786. Retrieved October 29, 2015.
  5. ^ a b c Cambridge Univ. Press (2006). "Spade; To call a spade a spade". Cambridge Idioms Dictionary (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 3125335973. Retrieved October 29, 2015.
  6. ^ a b Brewer, Ebenezer Cobham (1913). "Spade; To call a spade a spade". Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers. p. 853. Retrieved October 29, 2015.
  7. ^ Wilton, Dave (April 9, 2006). "call a spade a spade". Retrieved June 1, 2016. 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.
  8. ^ Devlin, Joseph (1910), How to Speak and Write Correctly, New York: The Christian Herald, p. 4
  9. ^ Wilde, Oscar (December 10, 2015). The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wisehouse Classics. p. 136. ISBN 978-9176371145.
  10. ^ The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People at Project Gutenberg
  11. ^ a b c d e Gandhi, Lakshmi (September 23, 2013). "Code Switch: Is It Racist To 'Call A Spade A Spade'?". NPR. Retrieved October 29, 2015.
  12. ^ Quinion, Michael (2004). Port Out, Starboard Home: And Other Language Myths. Penguin Books Ltd. pp. 60–62. ISBN 0-14-051534-8.
  13. ^ τῶν δὲ περὶ Λασθένην τὸν Ὀλύνθιον ἐγκαλούντων καὶ ἀγανακτούντων, ὅτι προδότας αὐτοὺς ἔνιοι τῶν περὶ τὸν Φίλιππον ἀποκαλοῦσι, σκαιοὺς ἔφη φύσει καὶ ἀγροίκους εἶναι Μακεδόνας καὶ τὴν σκάφην σκάφην λέγοντας., "When the men associated with Lasthenes, the Olynthian, complained with indignation because some of Philip's associates called them traitors, he said that the Macedonians are by nature a rough and rustic people who call a spade a spade.", Plutarch, Regum et imperatorum apophthegmata, 26.15
  14. ^ "Greek Word Study Tool".
  15. ^ "Lucian, Quomodo historia conscribenda sit, chapter 41".
  16. ^ "".
  17. ^ desiderius erasmus roterodamus: erasmus van rotterdam, Archived August 7, 2016, at the Wayback Machine