I once took part in a lengthy argument about whether the phrase referring to someone who ‘called a spade a spade’, was racist.
You can see where the confusion arose. ‘Spade’ has been (and therefore still is, language is a palimpsest, old meanings are never erased) a derogatory term for black people, derived from the phrase ‘as black as the ace of spades’.
Now I’ve always seen calling a spade a spade as being about digging implements.
I challenged the person I was arguing about whether she would be more or less bothered if the phrase was ‘call a hoe a hoe’ or whether the misogynist undertones of that would still cause trouble.
She wasn’t particularly happy with that (fair enough, I was drunk and contrary).
But language is multi-layered. That palimpsest doesn’t just exist in time, with meanings layered over layers by history. It also builds differently for different people.
Language is not exactly the same for each person, which makes it a problematic tool.
Figures of speech are often overcomplicated structures, that by their nature can be exclusive. Even if just because it’s possible to get them wrong (is it ‘toe the line’ or ‘tow the line’?)
Last night I watched a fascinating programme about kids growing up and experiencing/learning about sex whilst under the legal age.
One had a great take on figure of speech. She was asked if she wanted to have her cake and eat it too. She responded. ‘Yeah. And I don’t eat it, but I want to be able to.’
It’s perfectly valid and logical a statement, and great wordplay, but I can’t help but think that it obfuscates the point somewhat. I do however like the fact that the context of the program that eating cake was now a metaphor for dancing with boys.
This is all distraction, because the answer to the question is fairly simple.
No, at least not that I can think of. There are some black cultural idioms that don’t really apply to other people (does ‘the blacker the berry the sweeter the juice’ count, I’ve definitely heard that one). But then, I can’t be certain of the exclusivity of the examples.
For me, I think that both expressions aren’t even necessarily exclusive, because they are metaphors. By the very nature of figurative speech, it doesn’t matter if hair really comes down or cheeks really redden (and for the record, I’ve seen black cheeks redden, and black hair be let down). The meaning is non-literal. You can still refer to images where it doesn’t make sense (bald people can let their hair down, for example).
But I return to the spade argument.
If someone takes offence, then you need to listen. Listen to experiences you are incapable of having. The experience of not you.
It’s a constant challenge to keep on top of your language. But it’s a small price to pay for making the world better for everybody.
Check your privilege. Always.
That’s a more inclusive saying.
Illustration by Anna-Kaisa.