What Does Call a Spade a Spade Mean?

Calling a Spade a Spade Meaning

Definition: To tell the truth about something; to be very plain or frank.

When you call a spade a spade, you are telling the absolute truth about something. You are not sugarcoating it or keeping any part of it hidden or secret.

To call a spade a spade is more than just being kindly truthful about what you are speaking. You are fully exposing it or “telling it like it is.” Everything, positive or negative, is laid out for others to view and judge. This can often be a little rude or offensive.

Origin of Call a Spade a Spade

calling a spade a spadeThis phrase originated in Greek in Plutarch’s Apopthegmata Laconica. The original phrase was “call a fig a fig,” “call a trough a trough,” and “call a bowl a bowl.”

It was first translated into English in 1542. When the phrase was translated into English, the words fig and trough were replaced with spade, and the phrase has been “call a spade a spade” ever since.

The original passage reads as follows,

  • “Philippus aunswered, that the Macedonians wer feloes of no fine witte in their termes but altogether grosse, clubbyshe, and rustiall, as they whiche had not the witte to calle a spade by any other name then a spade.”

In the 1920s, language in the United States had evolved so that this phrase could be interpreted to have a racist meaning. Sometimes, to avoid this, other words are inserted into the phrase in place of the word “spade.”

Examples of Call a Spade a Spade

call a spade a spade meaningIf you are being overly sympathetic toward something or someone undeserving of your sympathy, someone may tell you to “call a spade a spade.”

For example, if you make excuses for someone else, saying that his or her intentions were in the right place when you know that person was acting maliciously, someone might say to you,

  • Come on, let’s call a spade a spade – they were acting only out of their own selfishness!

More Examples

  • And as media, we have responsibility to call a spade a spade, to point out when something’s fake, but is that enough?  –CNN
  • I just think we should call a spade a spade. The election is over. It was the nastiest election that this city has ever seen. –LA Times


The phrase to call a spade a spade is to be brutally honest about something.