When Robert Pacuinas addressed the Sacramento City Council on Tuesday, he was talking a blue streak about red-light cameras.
At one point, the 39-year-old lawyer emphasized his point by saying, "I think we should call a spade a spade."
He had only three minutes to speak -- but it was enough time for Pacuinas, who is white, to step into the confounding quagmire of race, language and context.
After he took his seat, City Councilwoman Lauren Hammond, who is African American, said sternly, "You -- made an ethnically and racially derogatory remark and I hope you think about what you said. -- It is not appreciated. It is no longer a part of modern English. The phrase just isn't used in good company anymore."
In an interview later, Hammond was no less angry.
"It's an old racist analogy and and I'm sick of hearing it. This is 2001," she said.
The councilwoman is known for being sensitive about perceived racial slurs. She once took a fellow council member to task for uttering the same phrase. Last year, she demanded that a word be removed from the 2000 census for Russian-speaking Sacramentans because it sounded too much like the N-word.
At the afternoon council session Tuesday, Hammond was perturbed, but Pacuinas was livid. He had just been labeled a racist, or at least racially insensitive. He was at a loss until he began replaying his words in his head, wondering what was so offensive. He was not afforded a chance to respond.
"I was completely frustrated," Pacuinas said later. "You would have to take it completely out of context to think that it referred to anything racial. How she connected the two, it just blew my mind."
It turns out, Pacuinas was correct. But so, in a way, was Hammond. Now Pacuinas wants a public apology. And so does Hammond. Their positions illustrate the potential of language to polarize, how the same word can mean starkly different things to different people sitting in the same room.
Most language experts agree that the phrase is nearly 500 years old and refers to the common garden implement. A variation of the expression has been traced to Greek biographer Plutarch, who died in A.D. 125. To call a spade a spade means to call something by its proper name, to speak bluntly, precisely.
But this saying, in the racially charged context of American public discourse, appears to be anything but precise. The word "spade" can mean a variety of things: a small shovel, a suit in a deck of cards, a 3-year-old stag. But it is also a derogatory term, now less commonly used, for a dark-skinned black person.
In interviews with a number of African Americans, they say they can't help thinking about racial issues when they hear the phrase.
Because language is a work in progress, it is possible that a saying that began as innocuous could someday be labelled "offensive" in dictionaries and usage manuals if enough people interpret it that way, according to Michael Agnes, editor of Webster's New World Collegiate Dictionary.
Agnes says he realizes the harmless meaning of the phrase, but he also realizes its harmful potential.
"We are in a hypersensitive language era, particularly in politics and social engagement," Agnes said. "If I were in a public setting, I probably would not use that expression, knowing full well someone could misunderstand it and take offense. One tends to avoid things that could be misinterpreted. I can't avoid confronting social and linguistic reality."
Ida Sydnor, president of the Sacramento chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said "spade" is one of those hot-button words that means different things to different people.
"It can be a racial statement if people are using it that way," she said. "However, the term has become so loose that a lot of people don't know what it means. We have to educate people that the word can be offensive. In all fairness to the guy, we would have to deal with the context and ask, 'Did he mean to be offensive?' "
Local politicians had no interest in getting in the middle of a discussion on language and race. Mayor Heather Fargo, through her aide, said she didn't want to talk about it. Neither did Councilman Dave Jones. Another council member agreed to talk, but not for publication.
A similar and much-publicized misunderstanding cropped up in 1999 in Washington, D.C., when a top mayoral aide (who was white) used the word "niggardly" in referring to handling a city budget. Most people would agree that the word sounds inflammatory, but it actually has a Scandinavian origin and the word is not related to the racial slur. It means stingy or miserly. The aide was forced to resign when staffers perceived he was being racist. He was eventually rehired.
"To call a spade a spade is not unlike the situation of 'niggardly' in that the term itself is innocuous," said Walt Wolfram, president of the Linguistic Society of America and author of the forthcoming book "The Development of African-American English."
"The problem is, when you live in a racist society, what you find is there is no such thing as neutral language," Wolfram added.
Hammond seems to underscore Wolfram's point. In fact, she still considers "niggardly" to be derogatory.
"Any word that has that base word refers to black people, the darkest people on earth," Hammond said.
By Friday, Pacuinas was still angry, unrepentant -- and speaking bluntly.
"I wouldn't mind sitting down with (Hammond) and talking about it," he said. "I just can't believe she is sticking to her guns."
But language experts say that in this racially charged environment, where the identical words can amuse some and wound others, there are those who will say the same thing about him.
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