15. October 2004 · Comments Off on On Calling Spades Spades. · Categories: General

I have been embroiled for a good bit of the day in a bit of etymological study on the word ‘spade’. This is all rooted in some objections I have gotten to my ‘thundering’ condemnation of those with opinions contrary to mine, as ‘idiotarians’ and ‘barking moonbats’. When I stated that “I always call a spade a spade,” several people derided me for my “racial” remark.

Well, any wordsmith knows that “calling a spade a spade” is no racial slur, despite what the PC chattering classes might say. However, I have had two stock replies to this. The first is “I consider spades as any other suit, unless I’m playing trump,” and “one should always call a spade a spade, unless one is referring to a Spade.”

To those pedantic types, such as myself, the subtle distinction in the latter case is obvious; but it seems to escape most people. Further, a problem exists in that card suits, and more often, card values, are popularly capitalized. This seems wrong to me; generic names for inanimate objects are not proper nouns, and should not be capitalized.

But, I’m still wondering about the capitalization of ‘wordsmith’. 🙂

Update: here’s something interesting from the JapanToday BBS:

African American

The Oxford English Dictionary contains evidence of the use of black with reference to African peoples as early as 1400, and certainly the word has been in wide use in racial and ethnic contexts ever since. However, it was not until the late 1960s that black (or Black) gained its present status as a self-chosen ethnonym with strong connotations of racial pride, replacing the then-current Negro among Blacks and non-Blacks alike with remarkable speed. Equally significant is the degree to which Negro became discredited in the process, reflecting the profound changes taking place in the Black community during the tumultuous years of the civil rights and Black Power movements. The recent success of African American offers an interesting contrast in this regard. Though by no means a modern coinage, African American achieved sudden prominence at the end of the 1980s when several Black leaders, including Jesse Jackson, championed it as an alternative ethnonym for Americans of African descent. The appeal of this term is obvious, alluding as it does not to skin color but to an ethnicity constructed of geography, history, and culture, and it won rapid acceptance in the media alongside similar forms such as Asian American, Hispanic American, and Italian American. But unlike what happened a generation earlier, African American has shown little sign of displacing or discrediting black, which remains both popular and positive. The difference may well lie in the fact that the campaign for African American came at a time of relative social and political stability, when Americans in general and Black Americans in particular were less caught up in issues involving radical change than they were in the 1960s. ·Black is sometimes capitalized in its racial sense, especially in the African-American press, though the lowercase form is still widely used by authors of all races. The capitalization of Black does raise ancillary problems for the treatment of the term white. Orthographic evenhandedness would seem to require the use of uppercase White, but this form might be taken to imply that whites constitute a single ethnic group, an issue that is certainly debatable. Uppercase White is also sometimes associated with the writings of white supremacist groups, a sufficient reason of itself for many to dismiss it. On the other hand, the use of lowercase white in the same context as uppercase Black will obviously raise questions as to how and why the writer has distinguished between the two groups. There is no entirely happy solution to this problem. In all likelihood, uncertainty as to the mode of styling of white has dissuaded many publications from adopting the capitalized form Black.

Of course, the question arises of whether or not the term “[b]Black” is being used as a racial slur. This question does not exist when using “[s]Spade” to refer to a person’s race.

I really should ask William Safire about this.

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