words in spades

black playing cards on black background
Photo by Raka Miftah on Pexels.com

What can we learn about calling a thing a thing? Here’s the thing. It is really hard. You have to take into an account a whole history regarding that thing. Dive deep. But then also, you need to read the room. Is it still okay to call this thing a thing or is it better to call it something else.

Consider the phrase: to call a spade a spade. The idea that this is a racist phrase seems to come from a conversation around an article from NPR published in 2013. Under the title – Is It Racist To ‘Call A Spade A Spade’? – the article describes how the word “spade” in a group of words like “blackbird, shade, shadow, skillet and smoke” accumulated racist connotation over time. The article gives no example or description of how the idiom was ever used in a racist manner, yet here’s how the article was received online:

All these examples are from people with more than 10,000 followers.

While the phrase has no racist origin, no documented racist use (open to correction on this!), and even though spade as a reference to race was created by Harlem writers, I would still now accept that the idiom has become racist. Why? Because the misinterpretation appears to be now the accepted knowledge, the received wisdom.

Some language or history purist might say don’t let the fascists determine fashion, fight the misinterpretation and restore the idiom to its rightful place in… what… everyday language? I don’t think it matters. The idiom is now racist because its been misconstrued as such. That sort of does make it so. The more interesting critique might be the facile reception of the history lesson – rather than considering how our word choices can be hurtful, the formula of avoiding a phrase and making a big deal about it in particular shows you the shallow hole some will dig and call it work.

I think the point is to learn something from the idioms evolution. Not always a spade, but once a fig, and perhaps then a substitute for what is concealed under that there leaf of the fig fruit. We don’t seem to know exactly what happened, but it seems someone in the 1500s mistranslated a greek writer’s phrase “to call a fig a fig” into “to call a spade a spade.” They either mistranslated it by mistake or they intentionally did it to avoid any sexual connotation that the fig carried. Figs were like the eggplant emoji in ancient Greek times.

Is something true, because people say it is true? No, I don’t think so. Yet, while I think it is important to test assumptions made on perceptions of fact, I think that some accommodation for good taste and fashion is fine. Why look for trouble even if you’re confident about the language that you’re using. Again, here’s the point that that I think we can learn from the history of the “to call a spade a spade” idiom: it evolved over time. Instead of sticking to one way of calling a thing a thing, let’s push for new ways – not to make things more complicated – but to find fresh, more inclusive ways to cut to the chase and call an aubergine an eggplant, a tomato a tomato, a thing a thing.

Are there any words or phrases that you know with meanings that have changed over time? What words or phrases have you intentionally phased out or substituted and why?

For more on the origins of the idiom see: Call a Spade a Spade, Miley Cyrus, and the Ancient Greeks by Matt Colvin.


  1. Taking into account the history of the language of a thing excludes the less well read.

    Exclusion is necessary at some point.

    Always glad to read your thoughts!

    1. Thanks for the comment, David! Is it turtles all the way down if we focus on exclusion in language only? Maybe the other part to equally focus on is resonance.

      Yesterday I listened to Steven West’s Philosophize This! Episode 188 on Byung-Chul Han and the idea of achievement society that prioritizes surface level interaction and surface level reading to support our personal brands rather than deepen meaning and understanding.

      How do we slow down reading, slow down listening, and become resonance chambers for people and the past to speak freely? Letting others words resonate means suspending for a moment our vigilant surveillance of threatening words. But what about speaking? Slower speaking that’s more more careful, self-policing seems less free, more self-excluding to the point of total silence.

      If I speak in the tongues of people and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

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