Social "Morays"

http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2331/why-are-milk-duds-called-milk-duds-plus/ has a second question about Social “morays”.

Obligatory Far Side:

I don’t remember if I got the joke when I first saw it, but once I did understand it it was burned into my head.

When a fish bites your heel
And it looks like an eel
That’s a moray!

Honestly Cecil was a little bit of an asshole on that one. Probably a little racist too.

Racist, how?

Maybe a bit insensitive to the spelling-challenged, but racist? Moray eels can be black or white, ya know.

I assume the charge of racism is based on Cecil’s use of the phrase “call a spade a spade.” A phrase which wasn’t racist in 2001 but probably is today.

It was considered mildly racist in the 70s when I first heard it. Did some bump in the space/time continuum cause it to get a free pass in 2001 specifically?

Well that was the date of the article.

We’ll just ignore the fact that “call a spade a spade” (16th century) is centuries older than the racist usage of spade (20th century), and the fact that “call a spade a spade” refers to the digging implement (from Anglo-Saxon spadu), which is a completely different word from spade the playing card suit (from spada, Italian for “sword”).

Another word I learned separately from reading and from conversation, without realizing that the two words were the same.

Example from the late nineteenth - The Importance of being Ernest

Yup, that’s a digging implement alright

You’re being disingenuous. A word or expression can have wildly different meanings in different centuries or milieus. Sure, “bitch” means female dog–at the kennel. That doesn’t give you a free pass in the office. And while “niggardly” has, I’m sure, the most innocent of etymologies, the manager who famously used it with a black employee in the DC budget office a decade or so back should have known better. He sure does now. An expression’s modern connotation exists quite separately from however Christopher Marlowe or Oliver Goldsmith originally intended it.

It’s been at least 40 years since I’ve heard ‘spade’ in reference to black people; give it another couple of decades, and it’ll be like how almost nobody knows that ‘welshing’ on a bet/deal/whatever was once a slam at persons from Wales.

FWIW, while ‘spade’ was a slang person for black people in the 1960s and early 1970s, at least in that era it just seemed to be slang, without any derogatory connotations attached. (Maybe in earlier times it did have more of a derogatory implication; I wasn’t around then.)

That’s just kowtowing to sheer ignorance. The word has NOTHING to do with the racist term that’s similar, and the outcry was absurd.

It’s about as stupid as if hispanic people got angry about the use of the term “spic and span”.

Ray.

More Rays.

That could never happen.

But I agree, it’s irritating when someone perceives offence due to their own ignorance. I once saw a Facebook exchange where a woman got very angry when someone asked her if she was retired. It turns out she was confusing the words “retired” and “retarded”.

You’re being disingenuous. The fact that the word ‘spade’ could be racist in some context doesn’t give you a free pass to call it racist in this article on this website in this century.

You have to come up with a justification that actually includes a justification, not just the observation that there are no free passes.

The phrase dates from the time of Aristophanes; it was old by the time Plutarch used it, and even older when Erasmus (15th-16th century) transcribed it as “spade” instead of “trough” or “fig”.

Only in the last century has it been conflated with “spade” as a racial slur.

A phrase in North England (particularly said of straight-taling Yorkshire country folk) is “He doesn’t call a spade a spade, he calls it an effing shovel.” I’m probably pretty naive but I always associated it with the gardening tool.

Literally the only time I have ever seen any reference to “spade” meaning “person of African descent” is people taking offense, or worrying about offense, from the phrase “call a spade a spade”.

And I suspect that if there were a racist usage of a phrase of that sort, “spade” would not be the word used, anyway.