Call a spade a spade

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To "call a spade a spade" is a figure of speech which explicitly calls out something as it is, by its right name. The implication is not to lie about what something is and instead to speak honestly and directly about a topic, specifically topics that others may avoid speaking about due to their sensitivity or the unpleasant or embarrassing nature of the subject.[1]

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1913) defines it as:

To be outspoken, blunt, even to the point of rudeness; to call things by their proper names without any "beating about the bush".



Its ultimate source is a phrase in classical Greek. Plutarch's Apophthegmata Laconica (178B) has την σκαφην σκαφην λεγοντας (ten skaphen skaphen legontas). σκαφη (skaphe) means "basin, trough", but Erasmus mis-translated it (as if from σπάθη spáthe) as ligo "shovel" in his Apophthegmatum opus. Lucian De Hist. Conscr. (41) has τα συκα συκα, την σκαφην δε σκαφην ονομασων (ta suka suka, ten skaphen de skaphen onomason) "calling a fig a fig, and a trough a trough". Though it is speculated that this may have been a dramatic choice rather than a mis-translation.[2]

The phrase was introduced to English in 1542 in Nicolas Udall's translation of Erasmus, Apophthegmes, that is to saie, prompte saiynges. First gathered by Erasmus:[3]

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.

It is evident that the word spade refers to the instrument used to move earth, a very common tool. The same word was used in England, Denmark, and in the Netherlands, Erasmus' country of origin.


The Oxford English Dictionary records a more forceful variant, "to call a spade a bloody shovel", attested since 1919.

The phrase appeared in chapter 1 of Joseph Devlin's book How to Speak and Write Correctly (1910)[4] 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.

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.

and again in The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).

Other authors who have used it in their works include Charles Dickens and W. Somerset Maugham.[3]

Ethnic slur[edit]

The phrase predates the use of the word "spade" as an ethnic slur against African Americans,[3] which was not recorded until 1928; however, in contemporary U.S. society, the idiom is often avoided due to potential confusion with the slur[5] or confusion with playing card references such as "black as the ace of spades".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ call a spade a spade - Idioms by The Free Dictionary
  2. ^ GANDHI, LAKSHMI. "Is It Racist To 'Call A Spade A Spade'?". Retrieved 26 April 2015. 
  3. ^ a b c Gandhi, Lakshmi, "Is It Racist To 'Call A Spade A Spade'?", Codeswitch, National Public Radio, September 23, 2013 (retrieved 14 June 2014)
  4. ^ Devlin, Joseph (1910). How to Speak and Write Correctly. New York: The Christian Herald. p. 4. 
  5. ^ Quinion, Michael (2004). Port Out, Starboard Home: And Other Language Myths. Penguin Books Ltd. pp. 60–62. ISBN 0-14-051534-8.