Is the Phrase, "To Call a Spade a Spade," Racist?

I frequently have used the phrase, "To call a spade a spade." Recently, Slate's Dahlia Lithwick employed the phrase, as did the editors of the popular Web site, RealClearPolitics.

A friend insists that the phrase is a racist one, since it refers, or at one time referred, derogatorily to black people. Wanting to avoid both bigotry and political correctness, I asked the fine lexicographers at Merriam-Webster two questions:

1. Is this true?

2. If so, does Merriam-Webster's research show evidence that the phrase still carries racist meaning?

Associate Editor, Neil Serven, replied as follows:

While some construe the phrase “to call a spade a spade” to have racial allusions, its history suggests that no such allusion exists.

According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase ultimately traces back to a Greek expression appearing in Plutarch's Apophthegmata. Plutarch's phrase contained a noun meaning "trough, basin, bowl, boat," which, it seems, was later mistranslated by Erasmus, who mistook the word for a derivative of a Greek term meaning "to dig." The error was carried over into English, where the phrase came to be rendered as “to call a spade a spade”; the first citation of the phrase listed in the OED dates from 1542.

The earliest usage of “spade” to refer to a black person in English dates from 1928. Most etymologists agree that this usage stems from the comparison of such a person’s skin color to the black markings found on playing cards.

The spade referenced in “to call a spade a spade,” then, is clearly of the digging implement sort, and has nothing to do with the offensive racial epithet.


Of course, if "some" people construe the phrase to be racist, and there is evidence for this (as Neil's response seems to suggest), then why do you judge the phrase to be completely benign, I asked? How much evidence does Merriam-Webster require to conclude that a phrase carries racial baggage? Indeed, isn't one of Merriam-Webster's axioms that definitions change with usage?

Neil's response:

Some folks may interpret the phrase to be racist only due to their not knowing which sense of “spade” it originally referenced. We do not have any valid evidence of anyone using the phrase with deliberate racial allusion, and its contemporary meanings—“to call a thing by its right name however coarse” and “to speak frankly”—make no racial allusion.

However, Google shows a number of instances of people uncertain about whether the phrase should be considered offensive. This would suggest to me that there are a significant number of English speakers who choose to tread carefully with it despite its innocuous meaning and history. This kind of information, while interesting, really only pertains to the circumstances surrounding the phrase, and not to the meaning of the phrase itself, and so it wouldn’t factor into how a lexicographer would define the phrase.

45 comments:

  1. Just because some people don't "understand" the meaning of calling a spade a spade and think it "might" be racist is no reason for people to stop using the phrase. Why should their lack of education or ignorance cause us to reduce or restrict our vocabulary? Look at the semi-uproar over the use of "niggardly". Some people have taken this sensitivity thing way too far.

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    1. Only if you are white and it has no negative connotations to YOU and has never been used to denigrate YOU it must be OK to use, right. Does this speak to your lack of education as well as your inability to think something is offensive even if YOU are not the object of its derogatory nature. This may be a product of your myopic and egocentric lack of education, but you know I would not want to call "A spade a spade..... " right?

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    2. The term was used WAY WAY before 1928 & that OED explanation is pure & utter nonsense. Oh thts rght it must b true
      " I read it on the internet!?"
      THE TERM IS DEROGATORY TO BLACK AMERICANS
      The word Boy has been around jus as long if not longer & that TOO is OFFENSIVE TO BA's

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    3. So calling someone "boy" is offensive to black americans specifically? It seems in the context you are referring to it, it would be meant negatively regardless of race. The fact of the matter is the term "spade" referred to a shovel long before it was used as a referrence to black people. Just because someone perceives something to be offensive doesn't mean it is or that the user intends it that way, once the lack of intended offense can be ascertained it changes how it should be perceived. The english language is full of words that have multiple meanings.

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    4. But Radar - would you take offense to someone saying "call a boy a boy"? I mean really... That's like getting offended because someone says "Well, I'm going to hoe the dirt later today" and someone gets all up in offense because it has a secondary use as a "sexist" comment. *rolls eyes*

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    5. @anonymous: Basically you are saying that you reserve your right to be offended even if their is no basis for that offense. A reasonable person would be pleased to learn that the phrase has no racial meaning. However, you appear to be upset because you can no longer feel insulted when that phrase is used. Maybe you should get off your high horse and focus on things that really matter. You obviously prefer to believe that a phrase has been used to "denigrate" you when, in fact, it hasn't been. It is sad that you would prefer to be angry then happy, but please don't blame others for that.

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  2. The above statement needs revision because the author is ignorant. This is what it sounds like he's trying to say:

    Because some people cannot understand the meaning of the idiom "to call a spade a spade" and therefore think it racist is no reason for me to stop using it. Why should the ignorance of other people cause me to restrict my vocabulary? For example, look at the semi-uproar over the use of the word niggardly. People have taken this "sensitivity thing" way too far. Because I do not perceive myself as sensitive to other people's plights, or ignorant of how perception can be misconstrued, I will continue to use this idiom.

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  3. No one has the right to determine the sensitivity of another - especially if the 'insulting' party has never walked in the shoes of the insulted party. All of us have something or some word that rubs us the wrong way. If one commits such a faux pas, simply apologize for the error while trying NOT to react too sensitively to the offended person's correction.

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  4. I think the above comment is racist, and because they have no right to dispute my sensitivities they should apologize to me

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  5. Tim, you're dead on.

    Anonymous Coward #1, should we only use words of one syllable, simply because ignorant people may misunderstand our words?

    Anonymous Cowards #2, it isn't right to take offense where no offense is given. Expecting one to apologize, because you've chosen to be offended, out of ignorance, is appalling.

    Anonymous Coward #3, you just may be right.

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  6. It’s simply absurd to stop using a phrase because someone who doesn’t know its origin may misinterpret your meaning. If I walk into a garden center should I ask for a “small shovel” so as to avoid the possible misinterpretation that I’m trying to find a black person? At the grocery store, should I ask for help finding the “Saltines” because I don’t want anyone to think I’m looking for a white person if I say “cracker”? Second guessing every word or phrase because someone with malice may use them in a derogatory manner gives those people power over our language. If they chose to misuse it that’s their right, as it is your right to choose to be offended by benign phrases. But we shouldn’t allow our language to be so easily coopted by a few people.

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  7. I think the fact that I had to look up the meaning,to see if it is racist, is enough to give the phrase at least a "Yellow Light". I would say be aware of your audience when using it, and be aware the very usage of it might at once alienate some people and momentarily cloud the point you are trying to make. Since People will try to decide if it is offensive or not. Just come up with a better way of saying it. "Let's Be Honest" or "When hit with the light of day" or whatever

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  8. May I just suggest the phrase "just call a hoe a hoe". Just be sure there aren't any ladies of the night in the garden center when you are asking for the small shovel.

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    1. Yes, but a hoe isn't a spade...Of course the expression worked better back when folks lived on farms and knew the difference between hoes, spades, and shovels... Problem is that these days most folks would call a spade a shovel.

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  9. Further the Asian vampires might be offended by the "yellow light" and the "light of day" if we are really going to call a spade a spade.

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  10. This is hilarious! Using the phrase in question would be archaic and useless anyway. People don't say this in "the real world" anymore. It just sounds IGNORANT, and to the topic of ignorance: sensitivity to others is ANTI-ignorant. So, your rantings-on about "why should I be sensitive..." blah blah blah are the exact reason you're probably not at the level at which you've dreamed of being in life, love, or profession. Think of how many votes a politician would deter if she or he went around spewing phrases that would even REMOTELY seem racially charged. That's kind of how we all need to be when interacting with people... CONSCIOUS! It is IGNORANT to say you do NOT care about another's feelings or sensitivities, or their ignorance. At the end of the day, I, personally do not give a shit or take offense to much; but when it comes to communication, it's far easier to get what we want when we are a bit sensitive.

    And I'm Anonymous bc I
    Don't feel like setting up a profile :p

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  11. Regardless of the origin of the word spade used in the phrase. I tend to think it is racist because it is usually uttered by someone in defense of a blatantly racist comment after you call them out on the comment. Example: someone I know said they wish they were black so that they didn't have to work and could get food stamps and welfare. When I called him out on that he said "just calling a spade a spade". It's not just this once. Every time I've heard the phrase used it has been used to justify a racist comment.

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    1. Well growing up amongst descendents of Wyoming homesteaders, the phrase was used quite frequently to, and it wasn't until adulthood that I became aware of a possible racist connotation.

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  12. Anyone who thinks that they don't have to be sensitive to others in how they communicate..then you tell me your race and I will say something to you that insults your ethnicity and see how you like it. You only show your ignorance when you think you don't have to be sensitive to others...you only want an excuse to say certain words...and you simply don't know how to live in a ethnically diverse society. Sad, very sad.

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    1. There's a difference between using a phrase in an innocent manner and using one with deliberate racist intent.

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  13. Totally agree with GCP...... I once used this phrase in conversation with a black work colleague who appeared shocked and concerned at my use of such a phrase. It was merely meant to describe someone who 'shoots from the hip' (does that upset cowboys?), or someone who 'tells it like it is' (does that upset honest people?). I am not racist in any way but after applying rational thought understood how it could be misconstrued.
    One final phrase...............'think before you speak' :0)

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  14. Clearly the phrase has had racist connotations for quite some time. I offer the following quote from Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" (first performed in 1895) as an example:

    “Cecily. This is no time for wearing the shallow mask of manners. When I see a spade I call it a spade.
    Gwendolen. [Satirically.] I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different.”

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    1. In reply to the quote from Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," (one of my favorite plays), that is a funny quote you've got there, but it was neither meant nor interpreted as a racial allusion or slur.

      But thanks for reminding me of a wonderful play. :-)

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    2. Clearly you are an idiot, because that quote has absolutely nothing to do with race.

      It's astounding how far people will go to misinterpret something as "offensive" just so they can join in some fake outrage.

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    3. Gwendolen is clearly referring to class. She has no idea what a spade is because she doesn't associate with the laboring class who uses them.

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  15. Neil Serven seems to think that if a word has a "benign" history, then it is benign. He also claims that there is no "valid" evidence of anyone using the phrase with a deliberate racial allusion.

    I'm not a PC person, but I recall hearing people use the expression as a racial slur. I think I've even heard it used in racial jokes. I'm sure Neil would say this is due to "confusion." Well then, I suppose that sometimes there is a fine line between "confused" (incorrect) use of words and phrases and the ongoing evolution of language. Language changes all the time, and people use language in creative (or incorrect) ways all the time. To dismiss the entire question as a matter of "confusion" is, well, a bit confused.

    It's not as if the "confusion" came out of the blue. In 1928 the word "spade" did, in fact, take on a negative racial meaning. Even today, 85 years later, I still hear it being used as a racial slur. If someone refers to an African American as a spade, the vast majority of Americans know it is a racial slur. The Merriam-Webster dictionary, for which Neil is an editor, includes the offensive definition of the word. Given that the word "spade," when used in reference to people, is so racially loaded, is it really any surprise that some people will "confuse" the phrase when it is used in reference to African Americans?

    I've heard it used by racists who, for example, will say "It's a fact that blacks are either criminals or on welfare. I'm just calling a spade a spade." It seems to me that racists who make such statements are using language in a very deliberate manner. And I would bet a hundred bucks that even if Neil were to explain to them about the correct (and benign) origin of the phrase, it wouldn't make any difference. Given the racist meaning of the word "spade," a racist might laugh at Neil and explain to him that they'll use the phrase as they see fit. And actually, racists are using language in a logical fashion: if "spade" can be a racial slur, then one can easily and logically use the phrase "calling a spade a spade" as a racial slur, no matter what its history. It's so simple and logical that even a child could understand the racist context, if used in a racist fashion.

    Moreover, racists may very well be familiar with the non-racist usage of the phrase. Neil is ASSUMING that they are confused. Neil can continue using that phrase whenever he pleases, to whomever he pleases. But I suggest that he keep his condescending attitude under wraps. Neil has been lucky enough in his life only to be exposed to "confused" people who aren't sure about the phrase and he's never been exposed to actual racists who use the phrase in a deliberately racist manner. Well, goog for Neil. Should I send Neil an email the next time I hear the phrase in a racist context, so he can have an instance of "valid evidence"? :-)

    So what's my bottom line? In some situations it will be okay to use the phrase, and in some situations it might not be okay. Unlike some of the commenters here, I'm not going to "insist" on using a particular word or phrase on some bogus principle about not caring if I offend ignorant people. What a pompous attitude!

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    1. Amongst a plethora of inane, ignorant comments, this one really takes the cake. To refute all of this bizarre hypothetical nonsense would take far more time than it's worth, but I feel that someone should point out just how utterly insane everything this guy wrote is.

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    2. Your use of the word "context" offends me as I am an illiterate prisoner.

      Also the term "bottom-line" is offensive to my arse as it implies my arse is the last thing you would consider. Now my arse is offended but i guess you think it's ok to offend a prisoners arse don't you....

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    3. @anonymous, jan 3, 2013

      Nice example of "ad hominem" in disguise.

      If there were such an abundance of faulty comments, it ought to be easy to point out and refute at least a few.

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  16. I actually do use with this phrase with some regularity. Not all the time, but when appropriate - & it often is. Let me just say that I consider myself a pretty darn PC person, & I have NEVER, EVER heard of this phrase being racist or construed as being such. I am, quite honestly, shocked to hear that such a "controversy" exists. I suppose if it turned out to be true, I'd of course stop using the phrase - but I'm certainly not going to stop saying it just because a handful of people think it MIGHT have MAYBE had racial origins POSSIBLY at ONE TIME with no evidence to indicate it to be true. Sheesh. Is no idiom safe these days?

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  17. I think the context of the conversion in which the phrase is used should be the deciding factor. Racist can certainly use the phrase incorrectly as a racial slur. I have heard it used in that manner. I have heard it used properly as well.

    I don't think "call a spade a spade" should be condemned to fade into obscurity because a few racist get creative.

    With all the access to info today, anyone ignorant of the origin of this innocent phrase or any other borderline subject can easily clear up the confusion (just like I did).

    That is all.

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  18. I'm British and we use this phrase all the time and I've never heard it used in a racist or derogitory way! You American's are crazzzzzzzzzzzzzzzyyyy! (sorry is that racist?) :-)

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    1. I am white English and when i was a child in the 1960s i regularly heard white people refer to black people as spades. They didn't like black poeple moving into the area and described them as 'that spade up the road'. They would make critisisms of them and then say 'just calling a spade a spade', as if it that made it ok. I understand that the phrase was originally inocent but when i first heard it it was racist, so i wouldn't use it myself.

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    2. As a white American, I was never aware of the racist meaning of the word spade until I saw/heard it used in a British film: "Withnail and I"

      Ever since, I have avoided the phrase. Why "call a spade a spade" when you can just "tell it like it is" without being misunderstood by anyone?

      Similar problems exist with phrases such as "best bang for the buck" (a variant on "biggest bang for the buck"), which sounds like a sexist reference. Again, why use it when it's becoming out of date and unclear? Why not just say "best deal for the money" or something that actually sounds clear and modern, easy to understand, and inoffensive.

      One answer is because of a bunch of stupid people who just keep mindlessly imitating what they hear instead of thinking independently about what they say. These are the educated morons who say things like "leverage" instead of "use." Or "begs the question" instead of "raises the question" (begging the question has a specific meaning in philosophy). Or "segue" without knowing that in music the term means the opposite of what they think it does. Or "trainings" or "comprised of" or a million other things that betray their utter ignorance of proper English, and their belief that if they just keep imitating other ignorant middle class (or upper class) people who use the same stupid phrases, they might be perceived as smart and classy and well-educated. Unfortunately, educational standards cannot be so strict as to teach most people to avoid these errors. If you don't know what a word or phrase means, then don't use it.

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  19. The phrase refers to an agricultural trough, not to a person. The term "spade" in the offensive slang sense is an old-fashioned Southern word that did not even come into use until the late 1920's, centuries after people had been using the word spade to refer to an agricultural tool. No one uses the word "spade" in the racist sense anymore, but plenty of people use it in the gardening sense.

    I use the phrase occasionally as in "call a spade a spade," including around black aquaintainces, and no one has ever mistaken it to mean that I was referring to a black person. If they did, I would simply explain that I was refering to the agricultural implement and move on.

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  20. This is madness. The world is spiraling down the drain of pandering to the lowest common denominator. The ignorance of others dictates how we are to speak? So rather than the person who was completly in the wrong apologizing for getting the wrong end of things, due to their ignorance, we must apologize to them for their mistake? How is this the proper way to behave? It is not and has never been a racist statement.

    In the future, if you don't understand what someone is saying, ask, or go home and do some research. Being quick to take offense is a fault, it is not to be rewarded or encouraged.

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  21. Growing up I always thought it referred to a spade as one of the suits in a deck of cards! I use the phrase, and one of my coworkers and close friends(who happens to be black) uses the phrase, too. I use it as a way of saying that I am not going to beat around the bush.

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  22. Time passes, Language evolves, "is" becomes "was", "has" becomes "at that time, had" (text quote from above)

    """
    The spade referenced in “to call a spade a spade,” then, is clearly of the digging implement sort, and has nothing to do with the offensive racial epithet. """

    Somewhere near the start of the 20'th century, when the political correctness of that time, made people shift terms they used, or avoid saying anything on the subject, people hailed back to the days when they could "call a spade a spade". They might include the phrase, using it like a secret handshake, to indicate their opinions, and highlight their own repression, and sympathy with others who could not speak their minds.

    Lots of people use it unknowingly, and if you heard it in your childhood, from someone you respect, who also used it without innuendo, you would probably strongly defend its innocence. That's natural.

    It is astonishing that that disguise still works after it has been pointed out, and on people who should be familiar with euphemisms, double-meanings, and language use.

    Since the phrase clearly has perceived meaning in THIS article, NOW, there must be a time when it started, or increased in usage. Surely a dictionary editors job is to seek out instances, and gauge how commonly it is used, rather than deny the possibility. Does this web-page-article not exist? Maybe there was an incomplete quote, or partial dialog?

    Theres a film with Anthony Hopkins, The Human Stain, where he (a UK literary professor in the US) used the word "spook" to mean an ethereal, absent ghost, but it was interpreted differently, by others.

    In that case, the hidden meaning was probably clear, before the book, but once the film has been made + seen, the connection cannot be denied, even if it had been made by the film itself.

    Obviously US English is different from UK English, where we have a TV series called "Spooks" about MI5/MI6 spies, and "hey boy" is Norwich poetic for "hey mister".

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  23. Thank you for defining irony so well.

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  24. Given the literary acumen cited, we might expect literate folks would be able to promote literacy among the less informed and minimize ignorance - that's meant in a literal sense - literally!

    It might help by looking at words as defined and in context.

    Really, why be so niggardly with your knowledge?

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  25. So...we have a bunch of dumb asses here? Let's get started! KAH PLOW BOOM CHA POW! That takes care of that.

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  26. I used the phrase recently when doing a training session to mean "lets just call it what it is" the only way I had ever heard it used and one lady got up and left. I went to check on her when I got a chance only to find out she was offended and said it was racists. I told her in no way had I intended it to be and had never heard it referred to as a racist phrase. I apologized for offending her and when I returned to the class apologized to the if anyone else had taken it that way. The response I received was that I was just saying to tell it like it was and didn't see the problem. It didn't end there though, I was "released" from my duties and told I would not be needed again.

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  27. I was 16 years old before someone ever called me a "honkey" and I didn't know what it meant. However, the chicano girl, who was about 10, was sneering and acting rude and was clearly baiting me. I kept my calm and asked her what the word meant. She jeered at me in front of her friends, used foul language, laughed, and said, "she doesn't know what honkey means." Ha, ha, ha.

    My only feelings were that I was afraid that the little monster might actually become violent and that I, who was at work at the time as a city park activities aid, would lose my job if I had to call the police on her. I certainly did not feel inferior or have my feelings hurt. She was the low life scum, not me.

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  28. Forget racist. The term was explained to me in all seriousness in the '40's (yes, I'm that old) as a misspelling: correctly, the term is "spayed", and means a horsetrader should not misrepresent a neutered animal as a functional female. And yes, I expect to hear from all you horsetraders out there.

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  29. Sadly this is how the confusion starts ..Someone hears something that wasn't even said and makes their own conclusions from it ..Spayed ??I have a very ignorant friend who is always doing this and the real reason he misconstrues things is he's too afraid to look stupid when he asks a question so he doesn't ask.As a result he messes up a bunch of quotes with outlandish thinking. the misinterpretations are so bizarre it's pretty funny .One odd thought was that people in the old days probably had a dreary life since they didn't have color and life was in black and white ...or mixing up phantom for fathom ...Un-phantomable .
    politically correctness and everyone becoming the victim is out of control .

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