Calling a spade. . . .

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Jun 30 18:16:00 UTC 2008

At 1:49 PM -0400 6/30/08, George Thompson wrote:
>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).

Well, the confusion is alive and well.  When searching the
classifieds in our weekly free neighborhood paper for a kitten toward
the end of the previous century, we came across an ad that

      SR. CITIZEN KITTY needs loving home, spade, all shots, healthy.
      I've been a good kitty & promise to be a purr-fect pet.  Please
      call ____.  Love Kitty.

There are currently over 2000 raw hits for "spade cat", only some of
which involve intentional wordplay.  But it is hard to agree with
Archie Taylor's claimed allusion.


>  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 -

The American Dialect Society -

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