Call a spade a spade. And a trough a trough.

Posted on 15 March 2011


Nope, not this type of spade. But you've just made a new expression in your head. It's that easy.

One of the joys of working where I do is that you are always having to explain idiomatic expressions, and work out the equivalent in the foreign language.

If I looked up the history or etymology behind each one I’d never make it to the studio, but when my colleagues asked me for a translation of the English “call a spade a spade”, I had to have a look back where the English came from.

It has quite an interesting linguistic backstory, as it happens – and as with all the best etymological stories, someone – somewhere down the line – slipped up.

Erasmus, the Dutch priest and theologian, was going about his business translating Plutarch’s Apophthegmata Laconica (“The Sayings of the Spartans”), when he got to the saying:

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”

He mistook the word for “trough” – σκαφη-ν (skafe-n) – for the word for “shovel, spade” – σκαφειον (skafeion).

Like linguistic Chinese whispers, in comes Nicolas Udall in the 16th century – and translates Erasmus’ work into English:

…as they whiche had not the witte to calle a spade by any other name then a spade.

Tuh-dah! The expression is brought into English, and it has clearly stayed its course as we are still using it today.

There is another theory which is anachronistic – and is the reason the expression doesn’t appear very often in the States – as the thinking is that ‘spade’ refers to the derogatory word for a black person. This has to be rubbish.

Anyway, this expression is one of those which has translations that are quite often unusual or unexpected in other languages – where they have been adopted in similar ways – sometimes similarly muddling things up all the ways.

So in no particular order – and, quite frankly as with “spade a spade”, I do not guarantee they are used in everyday parlance:

  • Spanish: “call bread – bread and wine – wine”
  • Italian: “call bread bread”
  • Russian:“call white things white”
  • French: “call a cat a cat”
  • Portuguese: “call an ox an ox”
  • Turkish: “call a curve a curve” (not sure about this one!)
  • Hungarian: “call a child a thing

In Hebrew and Chinese you also call a spade a spade or a shovel a shovel, as per the English.

But I think the prize has to go to:

  • Croatian: “govoriti bobu bob a popu pop” – which I think translates as “call a bobsled a bobsled, and an arse an arse”.

So, just remember when you plan on tell someone to “call a spade a spade” to make sure that it’s really a spade you want them to call it, and perhaps that the “bush” you’re asking someone not to beat around is in fact a bush.


Posted in: Just for fun