"call a spade a spade"

Charles Doyle cdoyle at UGA.EDU
Wed Jun 18 16:43:56 UTC 2008

The opinion seems prevalent among our list discussants that because a certain use or interpretation of the phrase is irrational or stupid, it should not exist--therefore it does not exist and cannot exist. Who would have anticipated THAT response from such a scientific and non-prescriptive congregation?!

>From Rosalie Maggio, _The Bias-Free Word Finder. A Dictionary of Nondiscriminatory Language_ (Boston: Beacon, 1991):  "_call a spade a spade_ get to the point, speak plainly . . . . The expression is associated with a racial slur and should be avoided" (p. 61).

>From Christine Ammer, _Have a Nice Day--No Problem! A Dictionary of Cliches_ (NY: Dutton, 1992): "A cliche since the nineteenth century, it acquired a slightly more sinister meaning when 'spade' became an offensive slang word for a black person" (p. 48).

In 1984 U.S. Sen. Jake Garn had to defend his use of the expression in relation to Rev. Jesse Jackson's having gone to Syria to negotiate the release of Lt. Robert Goodman [likewise a Black man], imprisoned after his military plane was downed; [anon.], "'Call a Spade a Spade' Quip Defended by Utah Senator," _Globe and Mail_ 4 Jan. 1984.

In the monograph I referred to earlier in this thread, Wolfgang Mieder, _"Call a Spade a Spade": From Classical Phrase to Racial Slur_ (NY: Lang, 2002), various such "insensitive" uses of the expression are reported--mostly not intended to be racist or racial but so interpreted (pp. 188-98).


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