Let's Call A Spade A Spade
There it is. I have said it. Now, what does it mean?
I always assumed that this was a racially insensitive statement. In fact, I thought it was downright racist. But when someone suggested to me that I was way off on this one, I decided to do a little research.
It was only recently, in the 20th century, that the term "spade" was used to refer to a Black person. Its origin comes from the "spade" suit in a deck of cards. Thus, with that definition, "calling a spade a spade" could mean calling a "racial epithet a racial epithet."
However, "calling a spade a spade" as an expression long predates the racial connotation of the word spade. As Random House explains, "to call a spade a spade" originated in ancient
"The exact origin is uncertain; the playwright Menander, in a fragment, said "I call a fig a fig, a spade a spade," but Lucian attributes the phrase to Aristophanes. Later, Plutarch notes that "The Macedonians are a rude and clownish people who call a spade a spade." (It is worth noting that the Greek word translated as "spade" seems actually to mean something like "bowl" or "trough"; the "spade" may be based on a Renaissance mistranslation. In this case the original expression was "to call a bowl a bowl," and thus the "spade" expression is "only" 500, rather than 2,500, years old.)" http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=19970115
The meaning of "to call a spade a spade" is to speak bluntly. Bartelby.com provides an excellent example (maybe I am biased because I am a lawyer) of the proper usage of the idiom. “The prosecutor said, ‘Let’s call a spade a spade. You didn’t borrow the money, you stole it.’” http://www.bartleby.com/59/4/callaspadeas.html
The question in my mind, is where does this get us. The phrase "to call a spade a spade" is not a racially insensitive remark. At least not in its origin. However, there is a segment of the population who believes it is, and therefore is offended by it. For example, A Sacramento City Council meeting got a little heated when a council-member used the idiom and his African-American colleague was insulted commenting that the idiom was an “ethnically and racially derogatory remark”. http://www.worldwidewords.org/topicalwords/tw-spa1.htm
In this way, the idiom is much like the word "niggardly" which is sometimes met with outrage from people who believe it derives from the racial slur "nigger." A white aide to former Washington D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams resigned after using the word "niggardly," a student in Wisconsin was outraged when her teacher insisted on using the word, a 4th grade teacher was formerly reprimanded for uttering the word, and many many other controversies have arisen. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niggardly
So what is the answer? What do we do with words or sayings that are not racially insensitive but people believe them to be? Do we stop using the phrase "call a spade a spade" because some people erroneously believe that it is a racial epithet? Do we stop using the word "niggardly" because people don't know what it means? Clearly this has happened before. I can't remember the last time someone used the word "faggot" and actually meant a bundle of sticks.
At the same time, there are racial epithets that are used all the time that people aren't aware of. Sometimes I feel like a one-man crusade to get people to stop using the term "gyp" which is a derogatory term for a gypsy. I don't think I have ever known a Gypsy, but I do know that the phrase "don't Gyp me" is the same to me as "don't Jew me."
At the end of the day, I am not sure where I come out on this. I don't use the term "gyp," am have never used the term "niggardly," and I never "call a spade a spade." It has made my life easier. However, the controversies over "niggardly" and "call a spade a spade" are always popping up. Knowing the actual definitions of these words and phrases leads me to side with the people who use them properly. I find the people objecting to be reactionary in that they are upset at the usage of words and phrases that they don't understand.
I am curious where other people come out on this. Do we stop using these words and phrases because of what people misunderstand, or do we stubbornly insist on using them in the proper form recognizing the storm that might erupt?
PS - can anyone tell me if the phrase "to welch on a bet" has anything to do with the Welsh? I have always assumed it does, but before I call someone out on its usage, I want some type of proof.