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What are the Origins of the Phrase "the Pot Calling the Kettle Black"?

"Don Quixote" includes the phrase "the pot calling the kettle black."
William Shakespeare used a version of the phrase "Pot calling the kettle black" in his play "Troilus and Cressida."
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 18 July 2014
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The term “the pot calling the kettle black” is usually used in the sense of accusing someone of hypocrisy. The origins of the phrase date back to at least the 1600s, when several writers published books or plays which included wordplays on this theme. Despite suggestions that the phrase is racist or nonsensical, the meaning is actually quite obvious when one considers the conditions of a medieval kitchen.

Typically, pots and kettles were made from heavy materials like cast iron to ensure that they would last and hold up to heat. Cast iron tends to turn black with use, as it collects oil, food residue, and smoke from the kitchen. Both pots and kettles would also have been heated over an open fire in a kitchen. As a result, they would have become streaked with black smoke despite the best cleaning efforts.

Since both are black, the pot calling the kettle black would clearly be an act of hypocrisy. The act could also be described by “it takes one to know one,” and it suggests a certain blindness to one's personal characteristics. There is another explanation for the term, involving the pot seeing its black reflection reflected in a polished copper kettle. In this sense, the pot does not realize that it is describing itself.

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One of the earliest written instances of the phrase appears in Don Quixote, by Cervantes. The epic book was published in the early 1600s, and had a big influence on the English language. Numerous terms and idioms have their roots in Don Quixote, such as “quixotic” to describe an idealist. Shakespeare also played with the concept in one of his plays, as did many of his contemporaries. The phrase has been twisted and expanded over the centuries, appearing in forms like “pot, meet kettle.”

Some people believe that the phrase is racist, since it refers to the surface color of the objects involved. These individuals might want to keep in mind that in a modern kitchen, the idiom might be “the pot calling the kettle silver,” in a reference to the fact that many modern pots and kettles are often made from polished stainless steel. In this particular instance, skin color has nothing to do with the idiom, except in the sense that both of the objects involved are the same color.

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Discuss this Article

anon924167
Post 8

The phrase is ambiguous because the context of the statement is missing. You could make fun of someone else for being now what they have scorned prior, and so in that context there would be no hypocrisy. However, the term, "dirty" is absent from the phrase and so that also leads to greater ambiguity.

anon319431
Post 7

Pot calling the kettle black is generally used to describe someone at fault labeling someone else at fault.

The problem is, if this analogy is followed through, why is it a fault for the pot to be black in the first place?

It isn't, yet the phrase is used in this way.

anon293298
Post 6

You are all missing the point. It´s about self deception and not seeing yourself as others see you. I don´t think the colour is the issue; it´s the dirt. It´s like saying to someone you need a wash when we ourselves are covered in muck. In summary, it means we must look to ourselves before criticizing others.

anon124188
Post 5

The speck in another's eye and a log in your own actually comes from the bible, and I think is a lot better to use.

"You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye." Matthew 7:5 NASB

anon110699
Post 4

Here in Africa, the meaning is more of "remove the log in your eye before telling you neighbor to remove the spec." This is because African pots are made from clay, which is usually black in most cases.

Another fact is that the pots are used over open fires, and the soot adds to their dark color. The kettle, meanwhile, is made from either steel or aluminum and in most cases is usually not that dark since it is washed along with dishes.

anon66030
Post 1

I once heard from a middle eastern friend of mine that there is a similar phrase from Old Persia. It goes as: "The sieve telling the watering-can that the watering-can has way too many holes in it". It was, of course, in reference to a person with lots of faults accusing an innocent man of a wrong doing and demanding that the man be punished severely!

This may kind of be related to the "a person in a glass house should not throw rocks at other people's houses."

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