"call a spade a spade"

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Wed Jun 18 15:42:43 UTC 2008

On Jun 18, 2008, at 7:32 AM, Andrea Morrow wrote in response to this:

> Dave writes:
> _____________________
> To my knowledge, no one has ever used "call a spade a spade" with
> the intent
> of it being racial slur. But that has not stopped some people from
> interpreting it that way--not unlike the objections to "niggard" or
> "picnic."
> The interpretation is not rational. It makes no sense, either
> linguistically
> or logically. But there it is.
> ____________________

Andrea concludes:

> I'm not saying that EVERYONE uses the phrase with a racial meaning,
> but I am
> pretty sure that it's equally mistaken to say NO ONE does.  And the
> phrase
> does make logical sense as a racial slur, because of the (already
> discussed)
> resonances of "spade" among some speakers.  I grew up hearing the
> phrase used as a defense of racist attitudes or behavior, and for that
> reason, I wince when I hear it used in a supposedly race-free context
> today.

like Dave Wilton, i hadn't experienced this racial use of "call a
spade a spade" before, but i should have realized that the expression
was pretty much guaranteed to have picked up a racial use for some
speakers.  and so to have become tainted for others.  (i am long
acquainted with the derogatory use of "spade" on its own; note the in-
your-face song "Colored Spade" from Hair.  i can't recall when i last
heard it -- it sounds old-fashioned, almost quaint -- but i'd
certainly recognize it in context.)

cases of offense-taking based on presumed etymology are all over the
map, from "picnic" at one end to "squaw" at the other.  a key
consideration is whether there are people who wield the expression
contemptuously -- certainly not the case for "picnic", but clearly the
case for "squaw".  in the second case, you might well want to avoid
the expression (even if your intentions are entirely innocent), so as
to avoid giving offense.  etymology is not the issue, as Bill Bright
explained in his discussion of "squaw", which concluded:

We can present the public with the facts of etymology, of history, and
of current usage. We can refute people who muddy the waters with false
or misleading statements in any of these areas; but we can also affirm
that human beliefs and feelings, whatever their origins, are
themselves facts, and must be taken into account. As citizens,
furthermore, we can and should fight racism, whether it is displayed
in words, deeds, or covert ideology.



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