‘Call a Spade a Spade’: Definition, Meaning and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on July 24, 2023

Did someone use the expression 'call a spade a spade,' and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.

  • If you ‘call a spade a spade,’ it means that you speak about a topic frankly and directly rather than beating around the bush.
  • This phrase has been a part of the English language since the mid-16th century, but its roots go back even further into history.

What Does 'Call a Spade a Spade' Mean?

‘Call a spade a spade’ is an expression that refers to calling something by its right and proper name– i.e., speaking frankly, truthfully, and directly about a specific topic. This is as opposed to “beating around the bush” or otherwise sidestepping the facts of a matter.

  • When someone says it’s time to ‘call a spade a spade,’ they are implying that something needs to be discussed, even to the point of bluntness and even if the topic is considered unpleasant, impolite, or coarse.

This expression implies that one should tell the truth regarding the nature of a particular topic or thing in question. A 1913 definition of the idiom found in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable was:

"...outspoken, blunt, even to the point of rudeness"

Basically, this idiom is a way to say one should “tell it like it is.”

Where Does 'Call a Spade a Spade' Come From?

When considering the etymology of this phrase, it’s tempting to assume the ‘spade’ in question has to do with a deck of cards. Actually, though, it refers to the tool used to move the earth.

The origin of this idiom can be traced back to the Apophthegmata Laconia which are a group of Ancient Greek manuscripts that are traditionally ascribed to Plutarch. Plutarch was a first-century scholar, philosopher, historian, biographer, and priest, to name a few of the roles he played.

First introduced into the English language in the mid-16th century thanks to the translation of the Apophthegmes by Nicolas Udall. Apophthegmes was itself a translation of Plutarch’s aforementioned work by Erasmus. In this translation, Erasmus replaced the images Plutarch used of “figs” and “troughs” with “spades.”

Many popular and literary works have used the phrase ‘call a spade a spade,’ including those of:

  • Charles Dickens
  • Oscar Wilde
  • Jonathan Swift
  • W. Somerset Maugham
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson

A Deeper Look at the Origin of the Idiom

In Plutarch's Apophthegmata Laconica, the phrase “calling a fig a fig, and a trough a trough" is found. When Erasmus translated this work, he switched up the words in this phrase. It is unclear whether this was a conscious choice or not, but he changed the word to ligo, which translates to “shovel.”

Thanks to the translation of Erasmus’ translation in 1542, the phrase was introduced to the English language.

Here is how it appears in Nicolas Udall’s translation:

“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 than a spade.”

The word ‘spade’ here is used to refer to a tool that is used to move the earth. ‘Spade’ is still the word used to describe this type of common tool in the English language.

The Phrase in Publications

Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that this idiom has been in use since before the 1800s.

In fact, the idiom appears in a number of dictionaries from the early 19th century. In one such text from 1852, we find the following passage:

Call a Spade a Spade.-- What is the origin of the common saying to call a spade a spade? Is it an old proverb or a quotation?... Mr. Halliwell, in his Dictionary says “The phrase to call a spade a spade is applied to giving a person his real character or qualities. Still in use.”

Another example shows up in The British and Foreign Evangelical Review from 1852:

“When Philip’s soldiers called the venal traitors in his train, who had been false to the interests of Greece, by their true name, they winced under it and complained to the king. He replied, that the Macedonians were coarse people, they called a spade a spade. If all men would call a spade a spade, it would be one of the bulwarks of morality.

Examples of 'Call a Spade a Spade' In Sentences

How would this phrase be used in a sentence?

Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • “In the play, the protagonist is instructed to call a spade a spade and stop sidestepping the issue at hand. It’s a pivotal moment in the story, as it’s clear that he wasn’t even aware himself that he wasn’t looking at his dilemma head on.”
  • They’re not ever going to call a spade a spade, John. You need to look at the situation and determine the best course of action for yourself.”
  • “My boss sent me an email beating around the bush about layoffs that are on the horizon. I understand why he is being delicate about the whole thing, but I honestly wish he would call a spade a spade.”
  • “I’m rooting for you, Sarah, but I also want you to take a look at the situation and be realistic. It’s great to look on the bright side, but it’s also important to call a spade a spade sometimes.”
  • “We went to the doctor this morning, and I finally received my diagnosis. I really appreciate that he just called a spade a spade rather than dancing around the issue.”

Other Ways to Say 'Call a Spade a Spade'

What other words and phrases have a similar meaning to 'call a spade a spade'?

Here are some options:

  • A rose by any other name would smell as sweet
  • If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck
  • Tell it like it is
  • Call it as you see it
  • Cut to the chase
  • Not beating around the bush
  • Lay it on the line
  • Pull the curtain back

Final Thoughts About 'Call a Spade a Spade'

‘Call a spade a spade’ is an idiom that has been a part of the English language for nearly 500 years. It means speaking about something directly, even if it means being rude, blunt, or matter-of-fact.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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