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To "call a spade a spade" is a figure of speech which explicitly calls out something as it is; by its right name. The implication is not to lie about what something is and instead to speak honestly and directly about a topic, specifically topics that others may avoid speaking about due to their sensitivity, unpleasant or embarrassing nature.
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1913) defines it as:
To be outspoken, blunt, even to the point of rudeness; to call things by their proper names without any "beating about the bush".
The phrase previously appeared in chapter 1 of 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.
Oscar Wilde uses the phrase in his novel "The picture of Dorian Grey" (1890) when the character Lord Henry Wooten 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."
Its ultimate source is Plutarch's Apophthegmata Laconica (178B) which has την σκαφην σκαφην λεγοντας (ten skafen skafen legontas). σκαφη (skafe) means "basin, trough", but Erasmus mis-translated it (as if from σπάθη spáthe) as ligo "shovel" in his Apophthegmatum opus. Lucian De Hist. Conscr. (41) has τα συκα συκα, την σκαφην δε σκαφην ονομασων (ta suka suka, ten skafen de skafen onomason) "calling a fig a fig, and a trough a trough".
The phrase was introduced to English in 1542 in Nicolas Udall's translation of Erasmus, Apophthegmes, that is to saie, prompte saiynges. First gathered by Erasmus:
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.
The phrase predates the use of the word "spade" as an ethnic slur against African Americans, which was not recorded until 1928; however, in contemporary U.S. society, the idiom is often avoided due to potential confusion with the slur or confusion with playing card references such as "black as the ace of spades".