Every now and then, some dispute flares up in the United States that reminds us that sensitivities over language in that country run especially deep.
The specific occasion was a meeting of the Sacramento City Council last week, reported in the Sacramento Bee, in which one speaker, to emphasise his point, said “I think we should call a spade a spade”. A Councilwoman, African-American, objected to this vigorously, saying it was an “ethnically and racially derogatory remark”.
Most people know that to call a spade a spade means that we should avoid euphemism, be straightforward, use blunt or plain language. Most Americans also know that spade is a rather outmoded derogatory slang term for an African-American. Putting the two ideas together, though, requires a person whose sensitivity to possibly offensive language is greater than their knowledge of word history. (Nothing new about that, though: remember all the fuss in Washington in 1999 over the word niggardly, and all those in the US who think picnic refers to the lynching of a slave.)
First of all, the spade in the expression isn’t the same spade as in the slang term. The first is undoubtedly the digging implement. The second is the suit of cards. In the latter case, the allusion was to the colour of the suit, and originally appeared in the fuller form as black as the ace of spades. The abbreviated form spade seems to have grown up sometime in the early part of last century (it first appears in print in the 1920s). Though they’re the same word historically — both derive from Greek spathe for a blade or paddle — the one you dig with came into Old English from an intermediate Germanic source, while the card sense arrived via Italian spade, the plural of spada, a sword.
An oddity is that to call a spade a spade is a mistranslation. The original was a line that the classical Greek writer Plutarch wrote some 2000 years ago about the Macedonians. He intended much the same idea — suggesting that the Macedonians were too crude and unsubtle a people to do anything other than use blunt words — but he used the word skaphe, variously a trough, basin, bowl, or boat. It seems the medieval scholar Erasmus misread it when translating the line into Latin and Nicholas Udall copied him when making his 1542 English version. The phrase has been in the language ever since.
If Erasmus had got it right, we might now be telling people to call a trough a trough, and Sacramento would have been spared the recent fuss.