Posted by: mattcolvin | September 4, 2013

“Call a Spade a Spade”: Miley Cyrus and the Ancient Greeks

(Caution: not safe for young readers.)


In the course of reading something on the internet about Miley Cyrus’ raunchy display at the VMAs, I came across the expression “to call a spade a spade”. I have always wondered about this saying, so I looked it up on Wikipedia. What I found piqued my curiosity even more, for the phrase has classical origins:

The phrase was introduced to English in 1542 in Nicolas Udall’s translation of Erasmus, Apophthegmes, that is to saie, prompte saiynges. First gathered by Erasmus:

“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 then a spade.”

It is evident that the word spade refers to the instrument used to move earth, a very common tool. The same word was used in England, Denmark, and in the Netherlands, Erasmus’ country of origin.

The Oxford English Dictionary records a more forceful variant, “to call a spade a bloody shovel”, attested since 1919.

The phrase predates the use of the word “spade” as an ethnic slur against African Americans, which was not recorded until 1928; however, in contemporary U.S. society, the idiom is often avoided due to potential confusion with playing card references such as “black as the ace of spades”.

So far, so good. But my family is fond of the party game Wise and Otherwise, described by one reviewer as “Confucius plays Balderdash”. The aim of the game is to complete the second half of a proverb, and then to pick out the genuine proverb from the ersatz ones submitted by players. In both the composing and the guessing stages of this game, it is desirable to find some inner logic to the proverb. That is simply the way human beings work: we are logical creatures, and so our proverbs are logical.


So it is impossible to be satisfied with the English saying “to call a spade a spade”. Why spades? Is there something about shovels that makes people avoid naming them accurately? I could understand if the proverb were “to call Voldemort Voldemort” or “Satan Satan”. But there is not, on the face of things, any logic in “to call a spade a spade”.

Was there ever? Has it been lost? Can we unearth any?

Wikipedia continues:

Its ultimate source is Plutarch’s Apophthegmata Laconica (178B) which has τὴν σκάφην σκάφην λέγοντας (ten skafen skafen legontas). σκαφη (skafe) means “basin, trough”, but Erasmus mis-translated it (as if from σπάθη spáthe) as ligo “shovel” in his Apophthegmatum opus. Lucian De Hist. Conscr. (41) has 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”.

The Wikipedia article is mistaken. The quotation from Plutarch is not from the Apophthegmata Laconica (“Sayings of the Spartans”), which has Stephanus pages in the 200s, but from the similar Regum et imperatorum apophthegmata (“Utterances of Kings and Generals”), also by Plutarch and also part of his larger collection, the Moralia.

I also suspect that the article is also mistaken about word for which Erasmus mistook σκαφη. It is more likely that Erasmus was thinking of σκαφείον, spade, hoe, mattock, than that he was thinking of σπάθη, which is more often the blade of a sword or an oar, and does not start with σκ-.

To make matters more complicated, LSJ distinguishes two different words spelled σκαφη. One, accented on the first syllable, is a ditch, or something dug – cognate, obviously, with σκαφείον, both being from σκάπτω, the verb “to dig”. The other, spelled exactly the same way, but accented on the last syllable, means “a bowl”, or “a kneading trough or baker’s tray”, or “a washtub”, or even “a bowl or tray on which offerings were presented by metoeci at the Panathenaea”. So we have many options for this word, but “spade” is not one of them. The English proverb rests on a mistake by Erasmus. Misled by Philip’s mention of “rustic” Macedonians, Erasmus assumed that the object in question must be a tool of rustics.

There remains the question of what on earth it meant when Philip of Macedon used it, according to Plutarch:

τῶν δὲ περὶ Λασθένην τὸν Ὀλύνθιον ἐγκαλούντων καὶ ἀγανακτούντων, ὅτι προδότας αὐτοὺς ἔνιοι τῶν περὶ τὸν Φίλιππον ἀποκαλοῦσι, σκαιοὺς ἔφη φύσει καὶ ἀγροίκους εἶναι Μακεδόνας καὶ τὴν σκάφην σκάφην λέγοντας.

Lasthenes the Olynthian and his friends being aggrieved, and complaining that some of Philippus’ retinue called them traitors, These Macedonians, said he, are a rude and rustic people, that call a σκάφη a σκάφη.

The town of Olynthus had resisted Philip’s siege. Lasthenes was one of the leaders who opened the gates and betrayed the town. Philip’s army, though owing their victory to the action of Lasthenes’ party, nonetheless despised them as traitors. Philip’s answer to Lasthenes’ complaint is clearly meant to confirm the insult offered by his men: “Yes, you are a traitor. They are perfectly correct. Too bad for you that we Macedonians” – for Philip would include himself – “are not more polite.”

Which of the meanings of σκάφη best fits this context? One possibility is that Philip is taunting Lasthenes’ party with the fate of their city, which was razed, and the foundations of which were dug up. “You are citizens of a ditch now. Well done.” But this is not a good fit for the context, in which Philip is confirming the slur “traitor” that was put on Lasthenes by the Macedonian soldiers.

Another possibility is that Philip is using an abbreviated version of the longer saying that appears much later in Lucian treatise comically entitled Quomodo historia conscribenda sit (“How History Ought to be Written”), (41). There we read:

τοιοῦτος οὖν μοι ὁ συγγραφεὺς ἔστω, ἄφοβος, ἀδέκαστος, ἐλεύθερος, παρρησίας καὶ ἀληθείας φίλος, ὡς ὁ κωμικός φησι, τὰ σῦκα σῦκα, τὴν σκάφην δὲ σκάφην ὀνομάσων, οὐ μίσει οὐδὲ φιλίᾳ τι νέμων οὐδὲ φειδόμενος [55] ἢ ἐλεῶν ἢ αἰσχυνόμενος ἢ δυσωπούμενος, ἴσος δικαστής, εὔνους ἅπασιν ἄχρι τοῦ μὴ θατέρῳ ἀπονεῖμαι πλεῖον τοῦ δέοντος, ξένος ἐν τοῖς βιβλίοις καὶ ἄπολις, αὐτόνομος, ἀβασίλευτος, οὐ τί τῷδε ἢ τῷδε δόξει λογιζόμενος, ἀλλὰ τί πέπρακται λέγων.
Luciani Samosatensis Opera, Vol II. Lucian. Karl Jacobitz. in aedibus B. G. Teubneri. Leipzig. 1913.

My translation:

Let me have a historian like this: without fear, impartial, free, a friend of frank speech and truth, one who, as the comic playwright says, calls a fig a fig and a σκάφη a σκάφη; one who does not dispense anything out of hatred or love, who is not sparing or pitying or respecting or being timid; an evenhanded judge, kind to all, but only until he takes away from another more than he ought; a peregrine among books, but a citizen of none, a law to himself, not subject to a king, never heeding what this or that man may think, but saying what was done.
(Oddly, the Fowler translation of Lucian omits the figs and renders the quotation by a retrojection of the modern proverb about the “spade” generated by Erasmus’ error!)

Astonishingly, there appears to be an entire German monograph on this passage of Lucian. Probably it clears everything up, but alas, I have no access to it here in the Philippines.

Lucian evidently uses the saying as a model of frank speech sine ira et studio. He presents the saying already as a quotation, but not a quotation from Philip. Instead, it is attributed to “the comic playwright”. We might suppose this is Menander, who was by far the most popular comic playwright of the Hellenistic age, were it not for the fact that Philip, who also knows it (if Plutarch has not put it in his mouth anachronistically), died when Menander was 5 or 6 years old. Aristophanes is another possibility. In light of this, I submit that the fragment quoted fully by Lucian, and partially by Philip, is likely to be from Aristophanes or some other writer of Old Comedy.

If that is the case, the mind of a Wise and Otherwise player may try to reconstruct the logic of the saying with that sort of comedy in mind. Not that that will be easy: Greek Comedy, whether Old, Middle, or New, is a very difficult genre in which to reconstruct context for a fragment: it is full of puns, double entendres, and humor both scatological and sexual.

It is in the latter category that we find the probable answer, for when we look up the word for “fig”, σῦκον, in LSJ, we find, tucked away at the very end of the entry, a definition that is not even given in English, but veiled in Latin by the lexicon’s Victorian editors: pudenda muliebria. The citation? Aristophanes’ Peace, 1350. That passage is a hymenaeal chorus anticipating the consummation of a marriage between the buffoonish protagonist Trygaeus and his bride Harvest:

οἰκήσετε γοῦν καλῶς
οὐ πράγματ᾽ ἔχοντες, ἀλλὰ

Ἡμιχόριον Β
τοῦ μὲν μέγα καὶ παχύ.

Ἡμιχόριον Α
τῆς δ᾽ ἡδὺ τὸ σῦκον.

You shall dwell luxuriously,
having no cares and gathering figs.

Second Half Chorus
Oh! Hymen! oh! Hymenaeus!

First Half Chorus
Oh! Hymen! oh! Hymenaeus!

Second Half Chorus
The bridegroom’s [you know what] is big and thick;

First Half Chorus
The bride’s fig is very soft and tender.

And with that, we have our probable answer: Aristophanes uses the word “fig” for things that, unlike shovels, are objectionable in polite conversation. It is not hard to imagine him using the word σκάφην (“ditch”) for the same thing. It is also easy to imagine Philip calling the Quislings of Olynthus a bunch of “pussies”. So the logic of the saying is clear, in Greek at least, even if it has been lost in English. We return to where we started: the likelihood is that a “spade” is actually what Miley Cyrus was pointing to with that foam finger of hers.



  1. “Can we unearth any?” Terrible!

  2. […] 6. “Call a Spade a Spade”: Miley Cyrus and the Ancient Greeks […]

  3. Dear Mr. Colvin,

    I was wondering if I could ask you a quick question about your translation? (I’m actually working on a history of this phrase for a freelance article I’m doing.) My email is in my comment details.

  4. […] Colvin, who has a PhD in Greek literature, recently pointed out that the original Greek expression was very likely vulgar in nature and that the “figs” and “troughs” in question were double […]

  5. […] Colvin, who has a PhD in Greek literature, recently pointed out that the original Greek expression was very likely vulgar in nature and that the “figs” and “troughs” in question were double […]

  6. […] who has a Ph.D. in Greek literature, recently pointed out that the original Greek expression was very likely vulgar in nature and that the “figs” and “troughs” in question were double […]

  7. […] who has a Ph.D. in Greek literature, recently pointed out that the original Greek expression was very likely vulgar in nature and that the “figs” and “troughs” in question were double […]

  8. […] Is It Racist to Call a Spade a Spade? – Mentions Matt Colvin’s article on the […]

  9. Very illuminating!
    And, perhaps new to the Google books offerings since you checked, the German monograph on this subject is available now online, free, at This is the Google scan of a book in which the monograph begins on page 29. I look forward to hearing what you discover; alas, I do not read German.

  10. Very interesting! If you want to dig deeper, here’s that German monograph, among Google’s scanned books:
    It’s only 6 pages, beginning on page 29 of this book.
    I look forward to reading your comments on Kessler, as I don’t read German.

  11. Oh darn it, first I double-post because WordPress seemed to reject my password and the comment didn’t appear soonly enough, then I find when I look that Kessler kindly wrote in Latin not German.

    • All the better for me, since my German is lousy, but my Latin is good.

  12. I’ve always wondered if it was really a mistranslation on Erasmus’ part or deliberate censorship.

  13. […] Source: “Call a Spade a Spade”: Miley Cyrus and the Ancient Greeks […]

  14. […] The phrase alluded to is λέω τα σύκα σύκα και τη σκάφη σκάφη, “I call figs figs and troughs troughs”, which is taken from Ancient Greek (Lucian: τὰ σῦκα σῦκα, τὴν σκάφην δὲ σκάφην ὀνομάσων) is the Greek original underlying the English expression “to call a spade a spade”, thanks to Erasmus’ mistranslation of σκάφη “trough, basin” (something you dig out) as σκαφεῖον “hoe, spade” (something you dig with). On the Greek expression see Wikipedia, Sarantakos, and Matt Colvin. […]

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