The Grammarphobia Blog

“Coming up spades”

Q: Watching TV over the last couple of weeks has gotten me into several discussions with friends about offensive phrases that have become common in the media. In our discussion, I was told by one of my white friends that she was told not to use the phrase “coming up spades” as a kid because it was a reference to slave ownership. Is this true? What is the origin of the spade in “coming up spades?” I had only known it in reference to gambling and the spade suit.

A: There’s nothing racially motivated or politically incorrect about the expression “in spades” or “coming up spades.” The spade is the highest rated suit of cards in contract bridge and other card games in which the suits are ranked. (The values of the suits, in ascending order, are: first, clubs; second, diamonds; third, hearts; fourth, spades.)

So to have a quality or characteristic or anything else “in spades” is to have a lot of it, or more than other people. For instance, “Jack lacks charisma, but his brother Jim has it in spades.” Or “There was a big cereal sale at the grocery store and now I have Cheerios in spades.” Or, “When she smiles, she has dimples in spades.”

I also get asked sometimes about another expression, “to call a spade a spade.” That, too, has nothing to do with race. The expression originated with the ancient Greeks, who would say of someone who spoke plainly that he liked “to call a fig a fig; to call a kneading trough a kneading trough.” But when the phrase was first translated during the Renaissance, the Greek word for “trough” (skaphe, meaning a trough, basin, bowl, or boat) was confused with the Greek for “spade” (the digging implement). So the modern English version of the expression is actually a centuries-old mistranslation. It’s purely accidental that today we don’t say, “He likes to call a trough a trough.”