Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Mistakenly racist terms

Q. A friend of mine became upset when I used the phrase “to call a spade a spade.” She says that it’s a vicious racist term. Is she right?

Your friend is dead wrong, and it’s a sign of our hypersensitive times that innocent words are often branded as offensive. Quite bluntly, such a reaction is the product of ignorance.

If you go back to the earliest written version of the saying, you bump up against a Greek satirist named Lucian (2nd century A.D.). To express the idea of speaking bluntly, of calling things what they are, he used the phrase (in his language), “to call a fig a fig and a boat a boat.” So where did the word spade come from?

It’s based on a mistranslation by the Dutch Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus [ca. 1466 - 1536]. In Greek, skaphis is a shovel or spade, and skaphos is a boat, a skiff. He chose the wrong word, and “to call a spade a spade” came into being. In 1539, John Tavener brought Erasmus’ Latin version into English in his Garden of Wysdome: “Whiche call . . . a mattok nothing els but a mattok, and a spade a spade.” A mattock, by the way, is a digging tool with a flat blade set at right angles to the handle. So Tavener was advancing the meaning of the proverb to show that even allied objects should be carefully distinguished. After that, the saying was off and running, and it was used by dozens of writers, eventually dooming it to cliché status.

Spade, the offensive racist term referring to a black person, probably derived from the color of the ace of spades in a deck of cards, and it didn’t attain this meaning until 1928. So only someone who believes that Nostradamus was on top of his game would believe that a phrase in use for almost 2,000 years miraculously foretold an obnoxious slang term of the early 20th century.

The same is true of “a coon’s age.” It refers to the raccoon and the mistaken notion that it lives a very long time. In fact, their maximum longevity is 7.2 years. What does last is coonskin, as Davy Crockett and his cap will testify. There is no racist origin in this phrase whatsoever. Of course, stupid people have used animals as insults for ages, including dogs, but it’s no reflection on this saying.

Finally, there’s niggardly, a term that enraged vocabulary-deprived politicians in Washington a few years back. It means “in a parsimonious or frugal manner,” and it comes from an Old Norse word meaning stingy. The vile and ignominious N-word, rightly held in contempt by educated people, comes from a Latin word meaning black, and has absolutely nothing to do with the adjective niggard.

Twisted minds can take innocent words and images and turn them into an attack, but sometimes the fault is with the listener or reader who, through ignorance, interprets an innocent or unconnected word with verbal assault. This is why I take Ludwig Wittgenstein’s words to heart: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

May 17, 2009

NOTE: It has come to my attention that some British racist organizations have been using this article to justify their twisted practices. They fool no one. ANY word that is used as racist code can, and should be, considered offensive. I remember white police officers in Chicago using the code word citizens to designate African-Americans, as in "the citizens are restless tonight." In any such case, intention vitiates an otherwise innocent word.

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