Call a spade a spade

To "call a spade a spade" is a figurative expression which refers to calling something "as it is",[1] that is, by its right or proper name, without "beating about the bush"—being outspoken about it, truthfully, frankly, and directly, even to the point of being blunt or rude, and even if the subject is considered coarse, impolite, or unpleasant. The idiom originates in the classical Greek of Plutarch's Apophthegmata Laconica, and was introduced into the English language in 1542 in Nicolas Udall's translation of the Apophthegmes, where Erasmus had seemingly replaced Plutarch's images of "trough" and "fig" with the more familiar "spade." The idiom has appeared in many literary and popular works, including those of Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, W. Somerset Maugham, and Jonathan Swift.

Full definition

To call a spade a spade or call a spade a shovel is a figurative expression which refers to explicitly calling something as it is,[1] by its right name.[2][3] The implication is that one tells the truth about the nature of the thing,[4] speaking frankly and directly about it,[2][3] including subjects, even if coarse, or considered impolite or unpleasant.[4][2][3] Brewer defined it in 1913 as being "outspoken, blunt, even to the point of rudeness", adding that it implies ones calling "things by their proper names without any 'beating about the bush'".[5]


The ultimate source of this idiom is a phrase in Plutarch's Apophthegmata Laconica:'την σκαφην σκαφην λεγοντας (ten skaphen skaphen legontas).[6] The word σκαφη (skaphe) means "basin, or trough."[7] Lucian De Hist. Conscr. (41) has τα συκα συκα, την σκαφην δε σκαφην ονομασων (ta suka suka, ten skaphen de skaphen onomason),[8] "calling a fig a fig, and a trough a trough".

Erasmus translated Plutarch's σκαφην (skaphe), as if from σπάθη (spáthe), as ligo "shovel" in his Apophthegmatum opus. Gandhi Lakshmi speculates that the introduction of the word "shovel" may have been a conscious, dramatic choice rather than a mistranslation.[9]

The phrase was introduced to English in 1542 in Nicolas Udall's translation of Erasmus' work, Apophthegmes, that is to saie, prompte saiynges. First gathered by Erasmus, as follows:[9]

Philippus aunswered, that the Macedonians wer feloes of no fyne witte in their termes but altogether grosse, clubbyshe, and rusticall, as they whiche had not the witte to calle a spade by any other name then a spade.

In the expression, the word spade refers to the instrument used to move earth, a very common tool.[9] The same word was used in England, Denmark, and in the Netherlands,[10] Erasmus' country of origin.[11]


Brewer includes the expression in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable in 1913,[5] providing a definition largely consistent with contemporary English usage in the early 21st century.[4][2][3] The Oxford English Dictionary records a forceful, obscene variant, "to call a spade a bloody shovel", attested since 1919.[12]

The phrase appeared in Joseph Devlin's book How to Speak and Write Correctly (1910), where he satirized speakers who chose their words to show superiority: "For instance, you may not want to call a spade a spade. You may prefer to call it a spatulous device for abrading the surface of the soil. Better, however, to stick to the old familiar, simple name that your grandfather called it."[13]

Oscar Wilde uses the phrase in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), when the character Lord Henry Wotton remarks: "It is a sad truth, but we have lost the faculty of giving lovely names to things. The man who could call a spade a spade should be compelled to use one. It is the only thing he is fit for." [14] Wilde uses it again in The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).[15] Other authors who have used it in their works include Charles Dickens and W. Somerset Maugham.[9]

The expression is also used in Spanish-speaking countries as "a llamar al pan pan, y al vino vino." This translates as "to call bread bread, and to call wine wine." It has the same connotations as the previously mentioned English versions regarding spades.

As perceived slur

The phrase predates the use of the word "spade" as an ethnic slur against African Americans,[9] which was not recorded until 1928; however, in contemporary U.S. society, the idiom is often avoided due to potential confusion with the slur.[16]


Look up call a spade a spade in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
  1. 1 2
  2. 1 2 3 4 Merriam-Webster (2003). "Spade; To call a spade a spade". Merriam-Webster's Collegiate® Dictionary (11th ed.). Springfield, MA, USA: Merriam-Webster. ISBN 0877798079. Retrieved 29 October 2015.
  3. 1 2 3 4 McGraw-Hill (2002). "Spade; To call a spade a spade". In Spears, Richard (Ed.). McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. New York, NY, USA: McGraw Hill Professional. ISBN 0071435786. Retrieved 29 October 2015.
  4. 1 2 3 Cambridge Univ. Press (2006). "Spade; To call a spade a spade". Cambridge Idioms Dictionary (2nd ed.). Cambridge, ENG: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 3125335973. Retrieved 29 October 2015.
  5. 1 2 Brewer, Ebenezer Cobham (1913). "Spade; To call a spade a spade". Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. New York, NY, USA: Harper & Brothers. p. 853. Retrieved 29 October 2015.
  6. τῶν δὲ περὶ Λασθένην τὸν Ὀλύνθιον ἐγκαλούντων καὶ ἀγανακτούντων, ὅτι προδότας αὐτοὺς ἔνιοι τῶν περὶ τὸν Φίλιππον ἀποκαλοῦσι, σκαιοὺς ἔφη φύσει καὶ ἀγροίκους εἶναι Μακεδόνας καὶ τὴν σκάφην σκάφην λέγοντας., "When the men associated with Lasthenes, the Olynthian, complained with indignation because some of Philip's associates called them traitors, he said that the Macedonians are by nature a rough and rustic people who call a spade a spade.", Plutarch, Regum et imperatorum apophthegmata, 26.15
  7. trough, tub, basin, Greek Word Study Tool, Perseus Digital Library
  8. Perseus Digital Library
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 Gandhi, Lakshmi (2013). "Code Switch: Is It Racist To 'Call A Spade A Spade'?". NPR (online, September 23). Retrieved 29 October 2015.
  11. desiderius erasmus roterodamus: erasmus van rotterdam, Archived August 7, 2016, at the Wayback Machine.
  12. Wilton, Dave (9 April 2006). "call a spade a spade". Retrieved 1 June 2016. We did not think it hypocritical to draw over our vagaries the curtain of a decent silence. The spade was not invariably called a bloody shovel.
  13. Devlin, Joseph (1910), How to Speak and Write Correctly, New York: The Christian Herald, p. 4
  14. Wilde, Oscar (December 10, 2015). The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wisehouse Classics. p. 136. ISBN 978-9176371145.
  15. The Importance of Being Earnest A Trivial Comedy for Serious People at Project Gutenberg
  16. Quinion, Michael (2004). Port Out, Starboard Home: And Other Language Myths. Penguin Books Ltd. pp. 60–62. ISBN 0-14-051534-8.
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