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<   No. 1902   2008-04-11   >

Comic #1902

1 Wendy: Arrr! We be ready to be findin' and diggin' up the treasure now.
2 Ponsonby: {carrying two shovels, while the Mate is holding a brace of picks} Wait! Mr Mate, give me one of those, and you can carry this shovel instead. {they swap}
3 Wendy: What difference be it makin' what tools ye be carryin'?
4 Ponsonby: In the Royal Navy we don't allow our crew to be two picky.

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I was really worried about this strip. Is that actually a shovel, or is it a spade? If I got it wrong, surely I'd get several thousand angry e-mails from readers pointing out how ignorant I am.

So I did some research.

Wikipedia wasn't much help. A spade is a "tool designed primarily for the purpose of digging or removing earth". A shovel, on the other hand, is a "tool for lifting and moving loose material". So which is this LEGO® utensil designed for? I dunno.

But wait. A spade "is sometimes considered a type of shovel". And a spade's "typical shape is a broad flat blade with a sharp lower edge". At least on the page about spades. The page about shovels says a spade "usually has a point and is designed to be pushed into the soil with a foot. Spade blades usually have a rounded face without sharply upturned sides". So does a spade have a broad flat blade, or a point, a rounded face, and upturned sides? I dunno.

Digging further into the difference (pun most definitely intended), I discovered the following page on (warning, contains vulgar language): Call a spade a ****ing shovel. This confirms my own experience that here in Australia we generally consider spades and shovels to be basically the same sort of thing, and that "spade" is just a snobby name for a "shovel". So if I was to go on that, Captain Ponsonby would undoubtedly call the utensil in question a "spade", because he's an upper-class British twit and for no other reason.

But further reading of that page contains the following information:

Spades and shovels aren't the same. A spade has a flat rectangular blade, while a shovel's blade is often rounded on the end, and is more scoop-shaped. A spade's blade is in a straight line with the handle, whereas a shovel has a bend behind the blade. If you put a spade's blade flat on the ground, the handle will also be on the ground. If you put a shovel's blade flat on the ground, the end of the handle will stick up to about thigh or waist high because of the bend, which is called a gooseneck or lift.
Okay, now I'm really confused. The LEGO® implement in question has a flat, rectangular blade. Therefore it must be a spade according to this paragraph. However, the handle is bent behind the blade, such that if you lay the blade flat on the ground, the handle sticks up, in fact to about waist height on a LEGO® minifigure. Therefore, according to this same paragraph, it must be a shovel. So what is it? A spade or a shovel? I dunno.

Hmmm. Let's try here. According to the LEGO® Group, who make the darn thing, it's a shovel. But then, so is this. And this. So what is it really? I dunno.

In desperation I turned to a bunch of people on an Internet chat. I should have known better. Someone said a spade is just a small shovel. Someone else said a spade is pointy on the end, which someone else denounced as wrong-headed and ignorant. Someone said spades were actually cutting tools, used to cut peat sods, not digging tools as such. Someone said a spade is big and flat, except if it's being used to move snow, in which case it's a shovel. Pretty soon people were calling each other Nazis and riots were breaking out across North America, and I think The Netherlands declared war on somewhere. And was it a spade or a shovel? I dunno.

I was going crazy! Then I found spade-shovels! And shovel-spades!

Spades! Shovels! Shovels! Spades!


As anyone who has followed this comic for any length of time could have predicted, I have received numerous correspondences regarding this topic. The findings can be summarised as follows: Naturally, this clears up my confusion no end.
2018-11-27 Rerun commentary: Some four and a half years later, a new reader going through the archive for the first time wrote to me about this. Here's what he said:

Hello again. I've been reading your Irregular Webcomic! and am enjoying it greatly. I know you appreciate reader feedback, especially on issues that are somewhat more important than standard everyday fare. In that light I wanted to provide what feedback I can in case you need such in future strips.

A shovel is flat-front and used for scooping, a spade is sharp-front and used for digging.

Not finding this comment to substantially add any real clarity to the already existing mass of opinions listed above, I wrote back:
Heh... After that build up I was hoping for something... a little more illuminating. :-)
My correspondent accepted this comment... a little too literally. He replied:

Of course. Please see following. In hopes this will be of even greater assistance.

illuminated illustration of a shovel and a spade

Then a year and a bit after that, another new reader trawling the archive felt compelled to clarify the situation by providing an authoritative source. He cited the fact that in a pack of cards, the symbols on the suit of spades have a point on the top, ergo spades have points, whereas shovels do not (they have flat front edges).

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