Monday, September 12, 2016

The Saying "Call A Spade A Spade" (article excerpts & comments)

Edited by Azizi Powell

[revised 9/19/2016]

This post presents excerpts from two online articles about the saying "call a spade a spade".

The Addendum to this post quotes two political comments that include the saying "call a spade a spade". Reading those comments motivated me to publish this post. That Addendum also includes excerpts of a 2012 pancocojams post about the somewhat related phrase "the spades go" which is found in certain hand clap rhymes.

The content of this post is presented for historical and cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Thanks to those who contributed rhyme examples that are featured in this post.

Article #1:
CODE SWITCH: WORD WATCH: Is It Racist To 'Call A Spade A Spade'?
September 23, 2013 by Lakshmi Gandhi
"What happens when a perfectly innocuous phrase takes on a more sinister meaning over time?

Case in point, the expression "to call a spade a spade." For almost half a millennium, the phrase has served as a demand to "tell it like it is." It is only in the past century that the phrase began to acquire a negative, racial overtone.

Historians trace the origins of the expression to the Greek phrase "to call a fig a fig and a trough a trough. Some attribute it to Aristophanes, while others attribute it to the playwright Menander. The Greek historian Plutarch (who died in A.D. 120) used it in Moralia..…

Erasmus, the renowned humanist and classical scholar, translated the phrase "to call a fig a fig and a trough a trough" from Greek to Latin. And in so doing he dramatically changed the phrase to "call a spade a spade."....

To be clear, the "spade" in the Erasmus translation has nothing to do with a deck of cards, but rather the gardening tool. In fact, one form of the expression that emerged later was "to call a spade a bloody shovel." The early usages of the word "spade" did not refer to either race or skin color....

In the late 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance, "spade" began to evolve into code for a black person, according to Patricia T. O'Connor and Stewart Kellerman's book Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language. The Oxford English Dictionary says the first appearance of the word spade as a reference to blackness was in Claude McKay's 1928 novel Home to Harlem, which was notable for its depictions of street life in Harlem in the 1920s. "Jake is such a fool spade," wrote McKay. "Don't know how to handle the womens." Fellow Harlem Renaissance writer Wallace Thurman then used the word in his novel The Blacker The Berry: A Novel of Negro Life, a widely read and notable work that explored prejudice within the African-American community. "Wonder where all the spades keep themselves?" one of Thurman's characters asks. It was also in the 1920s that the "spade" in question began to refer to the spade found on playing cards.

The word would change further in the years to come. Eventually, the phrase "black as the ace of spades" also became widely used, further strengthening the association between spades and playing cards.

Wolfgang Mieder notes that in the fourth edition of The American Language, H.L. Mencken's famous book about language in the United States, "spade" is listed as one of the "opprobrious" names for "Negroes" (along with "Zulu," "skunk" and many other words that I can't print here). Robert L. Chapman struck a similar note in his Thesaurus of American Slang (1989). "All these terms will give deep offense if used by nonblacks," warned Chapman, listing "spade" in a group that included words like blackbird, shade, shadow, skillet and smoke.

The British author Colin MacInnes, who was white, frequently used the term in novels like City of Spades (1957) and Absolute Beginners (1959) about the multiracial, multicultural London of the 1950s and '60s. MacInnes has been criticized for his exotification and sexualization of black culture in his books. MacInnes also coined the cringeworthy word "spadelet" to refer to black infants.

As with many other racialized terms, there were efforts to reclaim the word after it had become a slur. Four years after Malcolm X was killed in 1965, poet Ted Joans eulogized him in his poem "My Ace of Spades." The artist David Hammons also explored the negative connotations to the word in his 1973 sculpture "Spade With Chains." Hammons once told an interviewer that he began to incorporate spades into his work because "I was called a spade once, and I didn't know what it meant ... so I took the shape and started painting it." And a character in 2009's Black Dynamite (a spoof of the blaxploitation films of the 1970s) tells a rival that he's "blacker than the ace of spades and more militant than you."

So what does all of this mean for people who want to, well, "call a spade a spade"? I urge caution. Mieder concludes his case study with the argument that "to call a spade a spade" should be retired from modern usage: "Rather than taking the chance of unintentionally offending someone or of being misunderstood, it is best to relinquish the old innocuous proverbial expression all together."

From 5 Popular Phrases With Shockingly Racist Meanings And Origins by Elizabeth Enochs, October 29, 2015
" "Call a spade a spade" has been in use for nearly half a millennium (and variations on it date at least as far back as A.D. 120). But it didn't start to take on the racist connotation it has now until the early 20th century. Evidently, in the 1920s, "spade" started being used as a slang term, and then a derogatory slur, for a black person. This racist shift in the phrase's meaning also lead to the equally offensive phrase "black as the ace of spades." "
It's significant that (according to this passage and at least partly implied by the Black cultural examples that Lakshmi Ghandi gave in Excerpt #1), Black people first used "spade" as a slang referent for ourselves without any derogatory connotations. It was only later that "spade/s" became a derogatory term for Black people.

With regard to the last sentence "This racist shift in the phrase [call a spade a spade]'s meaning also lead to the equally offensive phrase "black as the ace of spades", it occurs to me that the saying "black as the ace of spades" can be considered offensive because of a person's intent to insult someone who is Black or a Black person (or a person of another race/ethnicity) who is dark skinned or very dark skinned.

However, "black as the ace of spades" isn't offensive in and of itself. After all, a person who is Black or dark skinned, or very dark skinned doesn't have to consider that something negative. Consider the example that Lakshmi Ghandi gives of a character in 2009's Black Dynamite movie who tells a rival that he's "blacker than the ace of spades and more militant than you." My reading of that example is that the character was bragging ("big upping himself") when he said that he was "blacker than the ace of spades" etc. He certainly wasn't insulting himself by using that saying.

I published this post after reading these two comments about Hillary Clinton's use of the newly coined word "deplorables" to refer to a number of Donald Trump's followers:
Oracle2021 Sep 12 · 08:00:19 AM
"I believe that progressives need to call a spade a spade. Donald Trump’s supporters are deplorable. I would not waste any pity on them. A lot of his supporters are well educated and well monied and they see the nastiness at his campaigns. They are upset that the curtain has been pulled away for the world to see. You are what you support! I find it disgusting and amusing that Donald Trump and his campaign continue to double down on defending the indefensible. The campaign is racists and so are its supporters. Hillary will never get these folks to vote for her! These folks are hell bent on returning to the 1950s. Evil takes hold when good men and women refuse to denounce it and provide cover for it. Thank you Hillary for calling out this evil and the bigots who promote hate."

antimony Sep 12 · 09:12:28 AM
"I worry a little that the problem is she wasn't calling a spade a spade -- she was using a new word (not new to the language, but not usually used in this context) — “deplorables”, rather than straight-up "bigots” or another such term. I've already seen one rightwing relative post a meme stating they’re a "proud member of the basket of deplorables”, because they really don't understand what she was saying. But they do claim not to be a racist (they post tons of thinly-veiled racist right-wing memes, but I think they genuinely think they aren’t). Adding a layer of euphemism on top isn’t what we need right now.

That said, I don’t think it will decide the election, and I don’t disagree with Clinton’s actual argument. But "basket of bigots” has a nice roll off the tongue, doesn't it?"
I believe that these two comments are examples of the idiom "calling a spade a spade" being used without any racial references or connotations. In these comments "calling a spade a spade" means "speaking bluntly", "telling it like it is".

After reading that dailykos article, I searched pancocojams to see if I had published anything on the saying "call a spade a spade". I didn't find one, but I had published a 2012 post about a somewhat related phrase "the spades go" that is used as an introductory phrase in certain children's hand clap rhymes. I revised some portions of that post today.

Here's part of that revision along with two rhymes that include "the spades go" introductory phrase, one rhyme that includes the phrase "the ace of spades goes", and one rhyme that includes the "the blacks go" introductory phrase:
"I believe that most children who chant rhymes that begin with the phrase "the spades go" didn't in the past and don't currently attribute any meaning whatsoever to those particular words. Instead, children say those words, if not the entire rhyme, by rote memory and focus more on the rhythm and the performance activity.

That said, it's my position that, early on, when a specific meaning was given to the introductory phrase the "spades go", that phrase meant "(This is the way) Black people go (say or do this rhyme). Unlike the idiom "calling a spade a spade"*, no pejorative connotations were/are attributed to the words "the spades go" in children's rhymes. Saying "the spades go" was a way of attributing the words of those rhymes or the way the rhymes were performed to Black people (or more specifically, to Black girls). That attribution lent authenticity to those rhymes and/or to their performance activities. That was because Black girls were (and still are) considered to be the arbiters of "the real way" that those songs or those hand clap rhymes were/are supposed to be sung, or chanted and performed. This was/is partly because Black girls were/are considered to be the sources of many of these rhymes, or were/are considered to be the "coolest" or "hippest" examples of how those rhymes should be performed. This same dynamic can be found in the use of introductory phrases as "the Black people say" or "the Black people sing" in vaudeville songs. And this same dynamic can be found in past and current attitudes that mainstream American (i.e. White America) had/has about Black people being the "go to" population when it comes to learning how to do popular R&B/Hip Hop dances....

Example #1:

....Ooh! The spades go, Down! Down! Baby!
Down! Down the roller coaster!
Sweet, sweet baby!
Sweet, sweet delectable!
Shimmy, shimmy cocoa pop!
Shimmy, shimmy rock!
Shimmy, shimmy cocoa pop!
Shimmy, shimmy rock!
I met a girlfriend a triscuit!
She said a triscuit a biscuit!
Ice cream, soda pop,
vanilla on the top!
Ooh Shelly, walking down the street,
ten times a week!
I met it! I said it!
I stole my mother's credit!
I'm cool! I'm hot!
Sock me in the stomach three more times!
From, Scene 12 Josh

Example #2
The spades go two lips together
Tie them forever
Bring back my love to me.
What is the meaning of this?
For all the fellows I've kissed
They tell the story
the story of l-o-v-e.
-Debbie O, "I'm Rubber . You're Glue: Children's Rhymes", December 29, 2006
"Two lips" is a folk etymology form of the word "tulips". The line about tulips tied together probably refers to a love charm that was believed to bring one's love back.

Example #3:
"Does anyone know a hand clapping song called (I think?) "Ace of Spades"? It goes like this:

Ace of spades goes two lips together,
down and forever
bring back my love to me
what is the meaning meaning meaning
of all the flow-ow-ow-ow-flowers
they tell the sto-o-o-o-story
the story of love from me to you

Then I think it goes back to Ace of Spades, but I don't remember if there are any more verses, and I don't remember the specifics of the hand clapping.

Anyone out there know anything more?

-ratgirl,, May 10, 2010
The "ace of spades" is a particular card in a deck of playing cards. The use of that phrase might confirm that children reciting this rhyme didn't/don't know that the word "spades" was/is used as a (usually derogatory) referent for "Black people".

Example #4:
[This 1973 example entitle Shimmy Shimmy Coke CA Pop" begins with the phrase "The Blacks go".

The Blacks go down down baby
Down by the roller coaster
Sweet sweet baby
I don't wanna let you go

Shimmy shimmy shimmy shimmy
shimmy shimmy-pop!
Shimmy shimmy shimmy shimmy
shimmy shimmy coke-ca-pop!
-John Langstaff, Carol Langstaff "Shimmy Shimmy Coke-Ca-Pop!, A Collection of City Children's Street Games & Rhymes (Garden City, New York, Double Day & Co; p. 76; 1973)

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  1. I had a look in The Times (London) and The NYTimes for the first occurrences of the phrase "as black as the ace of spades".

    It's in the NYT first, in 1856, and as I can't access the article itself I don't know the context. In the first appearance in The Times it's used in 1863 and in reference to the American Civil War. It appears to be used to describe the political slant of a newspaper, the St Louis Gazette. "'Black" in this case = "very conservative".

    Before that from the 18th C onwards there are numerous similes in The Times, and they're often very varied:
    as black as coal
    as a new hat
    as a baker's oven
    as gunpowder
    as my cloak
    as Rhadamanthus
    as pitch
    as Erebus
    as ink
    as jet
    as tar
    as the demon of falsehood
    as a pair of new boots
    as a chimney-sweeper
    as a funeral
    as sloes
    as charcoal
    as the wing of a raven
    ...and I could go on. For some reason, people seemed to like to dream up elaborate comparisons for the colour black. Only one of the similes above was applied to a person though.

    "As black as the ace of spades" is not used again in The London Times till the early 1920s, in which it crops up three times, always in reference to skin colour, and once as a direct quote from an American. Then it reappears 30 years later but referring to objects, not people.

    So, my guess is that it originated in America, and was not at first more likely to refer to complexion than anything else; but that with the rise of the American slang meaning of "spade", it became associated with skin colour. That meaning seems to have crossed the Atlantic in the 1950s.

    For all that, I've mostly heard it used to describe a particularly dark night, e.g. "It's black as the ace of spades out there, you can't see your hand in front of your face."

    1. Thanks for that information, slam2011.

      Here's another example of the use of "ace of spades":
      "Jay Z Launches New Champagne That Costs Over $125 Per Glass
      08/13/2015 AT 01:16 PM ET

      Jay Z‘s got a (bubbly) new product hitting the market, and it comes at a hefty price.

      Last November, the mogul purchased the Armand de Brignac champagne brand, taking control of one of France’s oldest (established 1763) and smallest (a staff of 8) houses.

      According to Bloomberg, the brand will begin delivering its first new products since Jay Z took over starting in October, including an all-pinot Blanc de Noir Ace of Spades in a gunmetal bottle.

      And the price tag? About $760 per bottle. Estimating that you can get six decent-sized pours out of that, that comes in around $125 per glass....

      While it’s not the most expensive champagne in the world (that distinction is held by diamond-encrusted Goût de Diamants), it comes in over 3 times as high as the brand’s current signature Ace of Spades bottle, which go for about $250 each."...
      Jay-Z is probably most widely known as a Hip Hop artist who is also R&B/Pop singer Beyoncé's husband.

      Here's another example of the current use of "ace of spades":
      "Ace of Spades HQ, Ace of Spades, or AoS is a conservative and humor-driven U.S.-based Political Blog covering current events, legal issues, military hardware, and salacious topics in popular culture. The blog was first launched in 2003. It has been quoted, mentioned, referenced or linked by The Wall Street Journal,[1] Fox News, CNN,[2] National Review, The Weekly Standard, and many notable online magazines/blogs, as well as on the floor of the US House of Representatives. The site's leading blogger, the pseudonymous "Ace of Spades," has also appeared as a guest expert on Fox News, although it is quite rare for him to make media appearances."...

    2. I just learned about the "Ace of Spades" blog and have never visited it or seen its leading blogger on any tv shows or elsewhere. But I don't think it would be a risky bet to say that it's very likely that "Ace of Spades" is a White man.

      I wonder if the "Ace of Spades" name was inspired by the fictional character "Sam Spade".
      "Sam Spade is a fictional private detective and the protagonist of Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel, The Maltese Falcon. Spade also appeared in three lesser-known short stories by Hammett.

      The Maltese Falcon, first published as a serial in the pulp magazine Black Mask, is the only full-length novel in which Spade appears. The character, however, is widely cited as a crystallizing figure in the development of hard-boiled private detective fiction – Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, for instance, was strongly influenced by Spade.
      Spade was a departure from Hammett's nameless and less-than-glamorous detective, The Continental Op. Spade combined several features of previous detectives, most notably his detached demeanor, keen eye for detail, and unflinching determination to achieve his own justice."...