How interesting that a mistake in translation would eventually be misconstrued as something else entirely! The journey of an expression to where we know it today can have many twists and turns along the road.
Let’s start with the present. Some people have suggested that the “spade” referred to in this expression is a derogatory term for African Americans, and as such the idiom is racist. As evidence, they point to an early incidence of it, in John Trapp’s Mellificium Theologicum, from 1647, where he says:
“Gods people shall not spare to call a spade a spade, a niggard a niggard.”
The association of the second part of this phrase with “negro” is in fact a misconception. The word “niggard” was used to mean “miser” or “mean”. And the “spade” referred to is a tool used for digging, not an insulting term for another person. It should be pointed out that the use of “spade” in US slang to insult people of African American origin arose in the 20th century, long after Trapp’s work was published.
So where can we look to find the origin of our phrase? Well, perhaps surprisingly, we can look to Greek. In Plutarch’s work Moralia, from Sayings of the Spartans (Apophthegmata Laconica – Αποφθέγματα Λακωνικά).
Here we find¨
την σκάφην σκάφην λέγοντας (tin skafin skafin legontas).
This means “calling a basin a basin”. So how did we get from here to spade? Did people use their bowls and basins to dig with? Not at all. It comes from a mistranslation. In the early 1500s, Desiderius Erasmus translated Plutarch in his work Apophthegmatum Opus. The precise date is not known, but it was sometime between 1518 and 1536, the year of Erasmus’s death. It should be noted that Erasmus was chronically short of money while he was studying Greek, and had to borrow and beg for funding and texts in order to pay for teachers and study, and this led to him doing a lot of work alone. Perhaps this irregular education approach was one factor in his making a mistake, as he translated the Greek σκάφη as “spade”, mistaking it for σπαθί.
You may be wondering how this reached English – Erasmus was, after all, Dutch, often known as Erasmus of Rotterdam, and certainly didn’t write in English. This came about in 1542 through the translation of Erasmus’s work by playwright and cleric Nicholas Udall, who maintained Erasmus’s mistake.
Looking at how this idea appears in other languages, it’s very interesting to note that the expression in Slovenian translates the same as in English, call a spade a spade; reci bobu bob. A very similar expression also appears in Welsh: galw pâl yn bâl; “to call an oar an oar”, a shape not unlike a spade.
Irish has an intriguing expression – ná baintear an t-ainm den bhlonag, which translates as “do not take the name from fat”.
Italian and Spanish both essentially use the same expression; llamar al pan pan y al vino vino in Spanish and dire pane al pane e vino al vino in Italian, both meaning “call bread bread and wine wine”.
For once I can present you with an innocuous expression involving a cat – in French you would say appeler un chat un chat, meaning “call a cat a cat”.
In Turkish, people concentrate more on the shape of things, it seems, with eğriye eğri,doğruya doğru demek, which means “call bent bent and straight straight”. This reads very well in Turkish itself, where it actually plays on the similarity between the words “bent” and “straight”.
Some languages have less colourful expressions, using the meaning “speak plainly” or “tell it like it is”. In Hungarian, the expression is a nevén nevezi, meaning “you name it by its name”, and the same idea is present in Bulgarian наричам нещата с истинските им имена and Polish nazywać rzeczy po imieniu. But Polish in fact has another expression that you may find interesting; Koń jaki jest, każdy widzi, which translates as “everyone can see what a horse looks like”, which seems to suggest that there is no point in calling it anything else.
A very intriguing pair of expressions come to us from German, where the norm is quite different, and people are not thinking in terms of calling things by their names. The first one is reden wie der Schnabel gewachsen ist, which translates as “to speak as one’s beak has grown”, while the second, just as different from the first as it is from its counterparts in other languages, is as follows: kein Blatt vor dem Mund nehmen, meaning “not to place a leaf in front of one’s mouth”. A refreshing streak of originality among expressions along very similar lines!
Of course, this would not be complete without looking at the expression as it is today in Modern Greek: λέω τα σύκα σύκα και τη σκάφη σκάφη (leo ta sika sika kai ti skafi skafi), which translates as “call figs figs and the basin basin”. Very little changed, as you can see.