Calling a spade. . . .

Charles Doyle cdoyle at UGA.EDU
Mon Jun 30 18:33:00 UTC 2008

Not to spay a dead horse, but . . . .

Nobody ever claimed that the expression "was originally a racial slur"!  The discussion focused on the extent to which, in recent times, it has been (re)interpreted--or, more rarely, intended--as a racial slur.

I concur with George's skepticism about the "neutered animal" hypothesis. And it's hard to imagine that the polyglottally erudite Archer Taylor, who had certainly studied Erasmus's _Adagia_, would have credited that hypothesis either.


---- Original message ----
>Date: Mon, 30 Jun 2008 13:49:35 -0400
>From: George Thompson <george.thompson at NYU.EDU>
>Subject: Calling a spade. . . .
>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.

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