"call a spade a spade" furor

Drew Danielson drew.danielson at CMU.EDU
Wed Nov 14 16:19:57 UTC 2001

Bruce Dykes wrote:
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: <Ittaob at AOL.COM>
> Sent: Tuesday, November 13, 2001 23:57
> Subject: Re: "call a spade a spade" furor
> > This would be laughable if it weren't so sad. It strikes me that the
> > sensitivity to "spade" is less understandable than that to "niggardly",
> since
> > I suspect that most younger people, at least, don't connect the word
> "spade"
> > with African-Americans. I perceive it as "old slang," something out of the
> > rat pack days, half a century ago. Am I right?
> I'm 33, and only ever heard it used by Archie Bunker...
> bkd

hmm...  To assert that "niggard" is "never or almost never used to refer
to African-Americans" is to assume that everyone who hears (and repeats)
this word knows it's empirical definition, and cares what the empirical
definition is, which I have to assume is not true.  Consider that the
word "niggard" is probably not in the the regular vocabulary of an
average American English speaker (well, maybe we had it on a vocab test
in middle school, and remember our peers at the time using it 'jokingly'
as a double-entendre...).  Also consider that for many Americans the
pronunciation of the final syllable makes the word sound like the past
participle of a verbed "n-word" noun.  Because it SOUNDS like the
"n-word" is all that an insensitive (or racist) speaker needs to get
into wordplay with it (think Beavis & Butthead-like, "heh heheh, he said
'niggard'"), while someone who has no clue that the word "niggard" has a
definition of its own could likely only assume that it is in someway
related to the "n-word".

Not that I'd ever get behind the special treatment of a word based on
its near-homophony to a 'bad word', but I think it's shortsighted to
assume that the empirical definition of such a word is solely relevant
to the PERCEPTION of its use.

Regarding "spade" - to assert that 'younger people' don't connect it to
its racist meaning is to assume that 'younger people' don't have TV, or
grandparents.  I am also 33, and just because I don't EVER refer to a
football player as a "gridder" or a boxer as a "pugilist" doesn't mean
that I don't make the connections.  I may not use these words, but I
index their cultural meanings.  With "niggard", the first thing to my
mind is not "miser", but the boneheads in eighth grade who thought it
was a funny word.

>From the OED:

1647 TRAPP Marrow Gd. Authors in Comm. Ep. 641 Gods people shall not
spare to call a spade a spade, a niggard a niggard.

1884 Punch 15 Nov. 229/2 If it is absolutely necessary to call a spade a
spade then it must be done in a whisper.

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