Calling a spade. . . .

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Mon Jun 30 17:49:35 UTC 2008

Thought you had heard the last on this topic, didn't you?

My email connection has been recalcitrant lately, or I would have posted this tidbit while you all were still hankering for more.

Archer Taylor, in his book The Proverb, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U. P., 1931), in a chapter on non-proverbial fixed expressions, says "The phrase to call a spade a spade may allude to a spayed dog, and possibly we can find support for this explanation in the synonymous Italian to call a cat a cat (chiamar gatta gatta).  On the other hand, the German to show him what a rake is (einem zeigen was eine Harke ist) suggests that "spade" means a garden implement."  (pp. 192-93)

Taylor was a great scholar in various aspects of folklore -- my fans may remember my boasting of having once read his history of the nose-thumbing gesture (The Shanghai Gesture).  Still, I don't find the "spayed dog" explanation very likely.  The Italian analogy isn't persuasive, and I have never encountered "spayed" used as a noun, as it is in the expression.  Still, the possibility that it was originally a racial slur seems discountenanced.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

The American Dialect Society -

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