The Grammarphobia Blog

Spade work

Q: Is there another way of saying “call a spade a spade”? Although it’s my understanding that the origin of this idiom is not racist, I’m not sure that the use of such an expression would “fly” in this age of political correctness.

A: I don’t necessarily agree with you about the need to avoid the expression. But if you must, here are a few alternatives: “don’t mince words,” “call them as you see them,” “don’t beat around the bush,” and “tell it as it is.”

You’re right, though, about the origin of “call a spade a spade”: it has nothing to do with race. The expression originated with the ancient Greeks, who dismissed a crude or plain-spoken person by saying he’d “call a fig a fig, a trough a trough.”

So where did the spade come from? We can thank Erasmus for it, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The Renaissance scholar confused the Greek words “trough” (skaphe) and “spade” (skapheion) while translating a slur against Macedonians in Plutarch’s Apoththegmata.

When Erasmus’s Latin mistranslation was rendered into English in the 16th century, the Macedonians were described as not having “the witte to calle a spade by any other name than a spade.”

Nikos Saratakos, who contributes to online language discussions about classical and modern Greek, has suggested that the expression was originally a slur because the terms “fig” and “trough” used to be sexual symbols. Thus, someone who called a fig a fig or a trough a trough would be considered crude.

Interestingly, the old expression has survived in modern Greek, according to Saratakos, but it now has a positive meaning, pretty much like our version. And if it weren’t for Erasmus, we also might be calling a trough a trough today.

If you’d like to learn more, check out this excerpt from Mark Israel’s informative FAQ on the newsgroup alt.usage.english.

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.