Call a spade a spade
This expression has been popular in England since the mid-16th century and means to talk bluntly and explicitly, sometimes to the point of rudeness. A more modern equivalent would be tell it like it is, with no frills. It has nothing whatsoever to do with spade as in slang for a Negro, which first made its appearance in the early 20th century. (Please refer to Black as the ace of spades.) The curious fact about this expression is that it owes its existence to a mistranslation of Plutarch’s Greek into Latin by the Dutch scholar Erasmus (1466-1536). Plutarch used the Greek word skaphe, which variously means trough, bowl or boat which Erasmus confused with the Greek spathe, which means blade, paddle or spade. When Nicholas Udall translated the Latin of Erasmus into English in 1542, the error was unknowingly perpetuated. Plutarch (46-140 AD) described the Macedonians as plain-speaking people. Nicholas Udall’s original translation from Erasmus is as follows. “The Macedonians were fellows of no fine wit in their terms but altogether gross and rustic and had not the wit to call a spade by any other name than a spade.” Etymologists believe that if Erasmus had not made his original mistake, we might be calling a trough a trough or a boat a boat instead of a spade a spade. There has been one refinement of this expression and that is to call a spade a bloody shovel, which is to talk even more bluntly and forcefully. Some sources maintain that the first citation of this latter expression is in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence (1919).