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«Call a Spade a Spade»

From Classical Phrase to Racial Slur: A Case Study


Wolfgang Mieder

This book is an attempt to trace the origin, history, dissemination, and meaning of the well-known proverbial expression «to call a spade a spade.» The first four chapters discuss the previous scholarship on this classical phrase turned proverb, trace its history from Aristophanes to Erasmus of Rotterdam, review the appearance of the expression in dictionaries of quotations, and analyze the inclusion of the phrase in proverb and idiom collections. The fifth chapter treats various meanings of the word «spade» – shovel, eunuch, playing card, and «black.» This is followed by four chapters dealing with the appearance of the phrase in literary texts from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, in scholarly writings, in the mass media, in advertisements, and in cartoons. A significant chapter shows how the innocuous proverbial phrase became a racial slur in the written media. The final chapter contains four demographic studies based on questionnaires to show the various interpretations of the «spade»-phrase among modern English speakers, including its unfortunate misuse as a stereotypical statement.