"call a spade a spade"

Wed Jun 18 18:40:43 UTC 2008

        There is a persistent problem with terms that have taken on, or
are perceived as having taken on, a pejorative association.  In a way,
the problem actually is easier with the phrase "call a spade a spade,"
since there really is a racist meaning of "spade."  (And, by the by, the
phrase itself is not very compelling, since nobody ever actually does
call a "spade" anything but a "spade.")  The problem is hardest with
words like "Eskimo," which has a unique meaning and is never, as far as
I know, used pejoratively, but is disdained by many of the people to
whom it applies because of a false etymology, see

        Thanks to Charlie Doyle for his demonstration of the racist
association and to Benjamin Barrett for his excellent summary of the

John Baker

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf
Of Benjamin Barrett
Sent: Wednesday, June 18, 2008 2:12 PM
Subject: Re: "call a spade a spade"

I've reread this thread yet two more times (and today with a clearer
head), and disagree that there is a prevalent opinion in the discussion
that irrational = nonexistent.

This seems to come from Dave Wilton's post saying he has never *known*
anyone to use the expression "call a spade a spade" with an
intentionally racist meaning. He also says that interpreting it that way
is *akin* to interpreting niggardly to the n-word. He points out that
such an *association* is illogical, but quite clearly says that it
*does* exist.

Andrea Morrow then responded that she grew up with people who use it
with an intentionally racist meaning. She points out that the
association is logical.

Then Arnold Zwicky says essentially that the association is obvious if
you think about it, but he hadn't considered it that way. He also points
out that there is a spectrum of offense-taking and that we should try to
be prudent when using expressions that have the potential for being
taken offensively. (I hope that is a good summary.)

I think this thread was illuminating in showing that "call a spade a
spade" has the potential for being understood as racist, something that
many people had never considered before. But I don't think that any
participant was trying to push the idea that if it's illogical, it
doesn't exist.


BTW, thanks to Andrea for giving the racist meaning of "call a spade a
spade," which is to use language daringly, without being PC with respect
to racism.

On Jun 18, 2008, at 9:43 AM, Charles Doyle wrote:

> 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?!

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