"call a spade a spade"

James Harbeck jharbeck at SYMPATICO.CA
Wed Jun 18 04:11:04 UTC 2008

>from AHD4:
>1. Games
>a. A black, leaf-shaped figure on certain playing cards.
>b. A playing card with this figure.
>c. also spades (used with a sing. or pl. verb) The suit of cards
>represented by this figure.
>2. Offensive Slang Used as a disparaging term for a Black person.
>Interestingly to me, there is apparently no etymological relation
>between this "spade2" and the digging tool "spade1".  I had always
>assumed they were related.

I had thought calling a black person a spade came from "black as the
ace of spades" (in any case, it does seem to come from the playing
cards, per OED). I was going to say that the spades in cards are a
stylized version of the digging tool, but then I remembered that the
equivalent suit in the tarot deck is swords* and that sword in
Spanish is "espada" (IIRC) and in Italian is "spada". And indeed the
OED confirms that the name of the suit comes from this, though the
design is influenced by the digging tool (the word for which is not
descended from spada, but is a cousin of it from an older root
referring to paddles, digging tools, whatnot). So there is a sort of
indirect association but, as you say, no direct relation.

James Harbeck.

*The other suit correspondences, for the curious, are wands = clubs,
cups = hearts, and pentacles = diamonds. The minor arcana corresponds
tidily to the playing deck, while the major arcana, which is the more
famous cards such as Death and the Hanged Man, is a separate thing
and has no playing card correspondences, except for the Joker = the

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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