I was reading this Wall Street Journal interview with Jean-Pierre Garnier, chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline--recently in the headlines because of its controversial diabetes drug Avandia--when I came across an expression that struck me as both familiar and odd. Garnier was talking about Glaxo's donation of 50 million flu vaccine units to the World Health Organization:
Dr. Garnier: It's probably the largest vaccine donation ever. The company could have sold possibly those 50 million units. They [Glaxo] decided to set them aside because frankly those countries are not going to buy any pandemic vaccine. Some of them have no commitment to health care.
Let's call a cat a cat. They'll buy a lot of other things including Kalashnikovs before they allocate enough money for health care in their own countries. ...
Garnier is French, and "Let's call a cat a cat" is the French equivalent of the English "Let's call a spade a spade." My grasp of French idioms is spotty at best; I admit I'd never encountered this one. So I did a little, um, spadework.
Both "cat" and "spade" idioms mean "to speak frankly" and were first documented around the same time, about 400 years ago. The French version is attributed in some sources to the satirist Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux (1636-1711), who wrote in his Satires:
Je ne puis rien nommer si ce n'est par son nom;
J'appelle un chat un chat, et Rollet un fripon
(I can call nothing by name if that is not his name; I call a cat a cat, and Rollet a rogue.)
The first written appearance of the English version was in 1542, in Nicholas Udall's translation of the Latin proverb "Ficus ficus, ligonem ligonem vocat," which itself was based on a misunderstanding of the Greek original: "To call a fig a fig, and a trough a trough," first recorded in Aristophanes' "The Clouds" (423 B.C.E.) and still used in modern Greek. The Greek words for "trough" and "digging tool" are related (skaphe and skapheion).
But how did the French get from skaphe to chat--if indeed that was the route they took? I have no clue. Any suggestions?
In Spanish, by the way, the idiom is expressed "Llamar al pan, pan y al vino, vino"--"to call bread bread and wine wine." In German the proverb is about as plainspoken as it could be: "Das Ding beim rechten Namen nennen"--call a thing by the right name. (I've also seen "Das Kind beim namen nennen"--"call the child by his name.")
In recent decades, "To call a spade a spade" has been clouded by mistaken racial implications (spade being a slur for Negro, derived from "black as the ace of spades," a phrase that wasn't documented until 1928). To be on the safe side, perhaps we should follow Dr. Garnier's lead and switch to cat-calling. As they say, 50 million Frenchmen can't be wrong.
P.S. If you know of equivalent idioms in languages other than the ones I've mentioned, please share them in a comment!