"call a spade a spade"

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Fri Jun 20 21:45:10 UTC 2008

FWIW, I've always regarded "call a spade a spade" in its racial
reference as, at worst, a lame pun, since I always known or, at least,
been under the impression, that the literal reference somehow had
something to do with card-playing and nothing to do with racism.

OTOH, I've always felt that "black as the ace of spades" had to do
with race, though not necessarily with racism, at least from the point
of view of white people. Famous-Barr, as The May Company was known in
Saint Louis, its corporate headquarters, once ran a full-page ad in
the local broadsheets with the title, "BLACK IS THE ACE OF SHADES!!!,
to advertise a sale of women's clothing styles in black. I found this
somewhat racist, but also rather cute, being, as I am, a serious fan
of puns.


On Wed, Jun 18, 2008 at 10:22 AM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at att.net> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
> Subject:      Re: "call a spade a spade"
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> At 6/18/2008 08:33 AM, Murrah Lee wrote:
>>The term "spade" for an American black person probably derives from
>>the phrase, "black as the ace of spades," which was used at least in
>>East Texas in the 1950s to describe a particularly black-skinned person.
> This is what I remember also -- although I couldn't say from when.
> 1882,   s.v. "manually, adv.":  G. A. SALA Amer.
> Revisited (1885) 185 An obliging waiter..facially
> and manually as black as the Ace of Spades.  OED.
> 1827, confirmed, The Table Book, by William Hone
> [2 vols.], page 181:  "She was, as her counsel
> represented, truly made up of flesh and blood,
> being what is called a strapping wench, as black
> as the ace of spades."  London, Hunt and
> Clark.  In "Loves of the Negroes. At New Paltz,
> United States. Phillis Schoonmaker v. Cuff
> Hogeboon."  (Its second sentence is "The parties,
> as their names indicate, were black, or, as
> philanthropists would say, _coloured folk_.)
> Google Books  I note that Phillis and Cuff are
> common names in the "bobalition" broadsides,
> which IIRC date from the 1820s; see John Wood Sweet, _Bodies Politic_. .
> 1833, confirmed, Blackwood's Magazine, Vol 33,
> Jan-June, page 752 (May):  "The aide-de-camp was,
> as I have said, jet-black as the ace of spades,
> but he was, notwithstanding, so far as figure
> went, a very handsome man ..."  In "Tom Cringle's
> Log". Harvard tells me this is by Michael Scott
> (1789-1835), Edinburgh and London, 1833.  Google Books.
> 1835, confirmed, Blackwoods' Edinburgh Magazine,
> Vol. 37 (Jan. - June, 1835), page 454 (March):
> "The fellow was a negro, and as black as the ace
> of spades ..."  In "The Cruise of the Midge,
> Chap. 12.  Harvard tells me this also is by
> Michael Scott, imprint varies, 1834-1835, 4
> volumes; and two other editions in 1835.  Google
> Books, which identifies it as No. 231, Feb. 1835.
> 1840, confirmed, Bentley's Miscellany, Vol. 7,
> [ed.?] by Charles Dickens, William Harrison
> Ainsworth, page 11.  "No wun would no me now, for
> I am as black as the ace of spades as was, and so
> is my shurt, and for clene ..."  In "Some Letters
> froom the Letter-Bag of the Great Western. Letter
> from a Stoker," by Sam Slick.  Google Books, full view available.
> 1849, confirmed, The Knickerbocker, Vol. 33, page
> 172 (February): "sitting in an inn in Baltimore,
> the other day, be was struck with the singular
> appearance of an old Guinea negro, • black as the
> ace of spades,' who was attending to some menial
> duty in the travellers' room."  In "Editor's Table".  Google Books.
> And many others.
> It's also, Google tells me, in Cassell's
> Dictionary of Slang, ed. 2006; and The New
> Partridge ..., 2006.  Do those give dates?
> Joel
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

All say, "How hard it is that we have to die"---a strange complaint to
come from the mouths of people who have had to live.
 -Sam'l Clemens

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

More information about the Ads-l mailing list