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shameless pleading

In spades

Dig it.

Dear Word Detective: I found myself using the phrase “multiplied in spades” and wondered where it came from. I assumed the game of Bridge, but a search showed no apparent connection. I can imagine a connection to other card games, to gambling, and eventually to success at gambling — living flush, “in spades.” But “multiplied in spades”? — Harry.

Well, that is a slightly unusual usage of “in spades,” but a quick search of Google turns up more than a hundred sites using that exact phrase (“The negative effect will be multiplied in spades,” et al.), so you’re not nuts. At my end, I did a quick search of my own site and discovered that in almost 20 years of writing this column (roughly 3,000 columns), I’ve used the phrase “in spades” repeatedly, but apparently never quite got around to explaining it.

There are actually two separate “spades” in English, but as soon as I say that I have to qualify it a bit. They’re considered separate words because they came into English by different routes, but they share a common source, the Greek “spathe,” meaning “paddle, wooden blade, sword.”

The first of these “spades” to appear (in Old English), filtered through Low German, was “spade” meaning “a tool for digging in the ground, cutting turf, etc.” (“Of labouring Pioners A multitude with Spades and Axes arm’d.” Milton, Paradise Regain’d, 1671). It is the shape of the common modern spade, sort of  heart-shaped with a point, that marks the suit of playing cards known as “spades.” The saying “to call a spade a spade,” meaning “to call something by its real name,” i.e., “to speak directly and bluntly,” also refers to the gardening implement, but the English version of this ancient phrase is actually the result of a famous error. Translating the saying from Plutarch, the Renaissance scholar Erasmus mistook a Greek word meaning “bowl or trough” for one meaning “spade.” So “to call a spade a spade” should rightly have been “to call a bowl a bowl.”

The other “spade” in English, first appearing in the late 16th century, is the black spade-shaped mark that distinguishes one of the four suits of modern playing cards. As I said above, the ultimate root of this “spade” is the same Greek “spathe” as that of the “spade” implement, but this “spade” was filtered through Italian, where “spada” had come to mean “sword.” Apparently Italian playing cards of the “spade” suit originally carried the mark of a sword, but because the “spade” of playing cards was the same word as the digging tool in English, the shape of the tool  ended up on our cards.

This new “spade” was only used in this “card” sense until the late 1920s, when the phrase “in spades” suddenly became slang in the US meaning “extremely, very much, in abundance” (“I always hear the same thing about every bum on Broadway, male and female, including some I know are bums, in spades, right from taw.” Damon Runyon, 1929). The “spades” of the phrase are definitely cards of the “spade” suit, which is apparently the highest-ranking suit in the game of Bridge. (I had a cousin once try to teach me Bridge when we both about twelve, but he might as well have been talking to his dog. He went on to become a gazillionaire. I guess I should have listened.) Anyway, I guess being “in spades” is a good thing in the card game, and that’s the basis for the slang phrase, although “in spades” is often used to mean an abundance of bad things.

Speaking of bad things, this “card mark” sense of “spade” is also the source of “spade” as an offensive slang term, primarily in the US, for a person of African descent (originally in the longer form “Black as the ace of spades”). The good news is that use of this term, which dates back to the 1928s, is fading fast and may soon be just an unpleasant memory. Incidentally, this racist use of “spade” has nothing to do with the phrase “to call a spade a spade” discussed above, although occasionally someone will object to that phrase under the mistaken (but understandable) impression that it does. Makes me wish Erasmus had been a bit more careful.

1 comment to In spades

  • susan sydney-smith

    I am really depressed at how often the term is used in the UK. I have returned from a city of cultural diversity (Preston) where it wouldn’t have come up, to Norwich, where I originally come from. It is a predominantly white population where even those seeking public office (a would-be Police Commissioner) use it freely. They tend to call all non-white people ‘coloured’. I find such uneducated use of language offensive, as a white person with an international extended family that includes by marriage, diverse ethnicities and belief systems (Black American, Fijian, Jewish). When I make a critical comment (as I feel I must) I am immediately stamped upon as being too ‘politically correct’. I proably am a pain in the ass but it worries me that if no-one picks them up, they will pass it on to their children. In the Bronze exhibition at the Royal Academy in London last week, an upper-middle class pretty student described ‘negro art’ to her mother: admittedly in terms of great admiration, but the language … !

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