"The pot calling the kettle black" is a proverbial idiom that may be of Spanish origin, of which English versions began to appear in the first half of the 17th century. It means a situation in which somebody accuses someone else of a fault which the accuser shares, and therefore is an example of psychological projection, or hypocrisy. Use of the expression to discredit or deflect a claim of wrongdoing by attacking the originator of the claim for their own similar behaviour (rather than acknowledging the guilt of both) is the tu quoque logical fallacy.
The earliest appearance of the idiom is in Thomas Shelton's 1620 translation of the Spanish novel Don Quixote. The protagonist is growing increasingly restive under the criticisms of his servant Sancho Panza, one of which is that "You are like what is said that the frying-pan said to the kettle, 'Avant, black-browes'." The Spanish text at this point reads: Dijo el sartén a la caldera, Quítate allá ojinegra (Said the pan to the pot, get out of there black-eyes). It is identified as a proverb (refrán) in the text, functioning as a retort to the person who criticises another of the same defect that he plainly has. Among several variations, the one where the pan addresses the pot as culinegra (black-arse) makes clear that they are dirtied in common by contact with the cooking fire.
This translation was also recorded in England soon afterwards as "The pot calls the pan burnt-arse" in John Clarke's collection of proverbs, Paroemiologia Anglo-Latina (1639). A nearer approach to the present wording is provided by William Penn in his collection Some Fruits of Solitude in Reflections and Maxims (1682):
"If thou hast not conquer'd thy self in that which is thy own particular Weakness, thou hast no Title to Virtue, tho' thou art free of other Men's. For a Covetous Man to inveigh against Prodigality, an Atheist against Idolatry, a Tyrant against Rebellion, or a Lyer against Forgery, and a Drunkard against Intemperance, is for the Pot to call the Kettle black."
But, apart from the final example in this passage, there is no strict accord between the behaviour of the critic and the person censured.
An alternative modern interpretation, far removed from the original intention, argues that while the pot is sooty (from being placed on a fire), the kettle is polished and shiny; hence, when the pot accuses the kettle of being black, it is the pot's own sooty reflection that it sees: the pot accuses the kettle of a fault that only the pot has, rather than one that they share. The point is illustrated by a poem that appeared anonymously in an early issue of St. Nicholas Magazine from 1876:
"Oho!" said the pot to the kettle;
"You are dirty and ugly and black!
Sure no one would think you were metal,
Except when you're given a crack."
"Not so! not so!" kettle said to the pot;
"'Tis your own dirty image you see;
For I am so clean – without blemish or blot –
That your blackness is mirrored in me."
Similar themes in antiquity
- In ancient Greece, mention of 'the Snake and the Crab' signified much the same, where the critic censures its own behaviour in another. The first instance of this is in a drinking song (skolion) dating from the late 6th or early 5th century BCE. The fable ascribed to Aesop concerns a mother crab and its young, where the mother tells the child to walk straight and is asked in return to demonstrate how that is done.
- The same theme differently expressed occurs in the Aramaic version of the story of Ahiqar, dating from about 500 BCE. 'The bramble sent to the pomegranate tree saying, "Wherefore the multitude of thy thorns to him that toucheth thy fruit?" The pomegranate tree answered and said to the bramble, "Thou art all thorns to him that toucheth thee".
- Talmud: "Do not ascribe to your fellow your own blemish" (BM 59b).... "a person stigmatizes another with his own blemish" (Kid. 70b).
- The Mote and the Beam - In Matthew 7:3-5, it is criticism of a less significant failing by those who are worse that is the target of the Sermon on the Mount: "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?"
In other languages
- In Basque it's said "zozoak beleari ipurbeltz" (The blackbird <called> the crow a black-arse)
- The Brazilians say O sujo falando do mal lavado. This literally means "The dirty talking about the badly washed".
- A similar Chinese proverb exists: 五十步笑百步 Wǔshí bù xiào bǎi bù or "Fifty steps laughing at a hundred steps". Referring to slower retreating soldiers laughing at retreating soldiers who run faster than them.
- In Dutch the expression goes De pot verwijt de ketel dat hij zwart ziet. This literally means "The pot reproaches the kettle it appears to be black".
- In French, a similar comparison is made: C'est l'Hôpital qui se moque/fout de la Charité ("The hospital is mocking charity"). It underlines the absurdity of judging someone or something that is fundamentally better than the subject. An alternative explanation is that the Hospital and Charity were two hospitals of the city of Lyon in the Middle Ages, which mocked their respective mortality rates, equally very high... so laugh of someone for a defect we also possess...
- There is a similar expression in Greek : είπε ο γάϊδαρος τον πετεινό κεφάλα eípe o gáïdaros ton peteinó kefála, which means "The donkey said the rooster had a big head".
- In Hindi, उल्टा चोर कोतवाल को डांटे Ulṭā cor kotvāl ko ḍāṇṭe means that "The thieves instead scold the police".
- In Hungarian, "Bagoly mondja verébnek(, hogy nagyfejű)" means "The owl telling the sparrow( that it has a big head)" with the bracketed clause sometimes omitted.
- The Italians say Il bue dice 'cornuto' all'asino, that literally means: "The ox calls the donkey ‘horned’".
- Also popular in Latin America is the phrase "el burro hablando de orejas", or "The donkey talking about ears".
- In Lithuania a similar proverb exists: Lithuanian: juokiasi puodas, kad katilas juodas ("the pot laughs at the cauldron being black").
- In Mexico, the phrase goes el comal le dijo a la olla..., literally the "comal" said to the pot. Although the full phrase goes el comal le dijo a la olla, que tiznada estás ("the comal said to the pot, you are so full of soot"), for most people it is reminiscent of a popular children's song by Francisco Gabilondo Soler, "Cri-Cri", in which the comal complains to the pot for laying on top of it (el comal, le dijo a la olla, oye olla, oye oye!, si tu te has creido que yo soy recargadera). Hence, when asking people in Mexico to complete the phrase, most would answer "oye, oye".
- "The pot calling the pot black" (Persian: دیگ به دیگ می گوید رویت سیاه), is a common proverbial idiom in Persian to describe hypocritical encounters. According to Dehkhoda, the idiom in its current form was first documented as a historical Persian proverb in the Jame ol tamsil, a comprehensive collection of Persian idioms written in 1640, but the origins are thought to be much older. Blackened cooking pots in the Persian literature were symbolically used to describe negative personalities. In Hadiqat al Haqiqa (1130 AD), Sanai described unwise people's words like pots, empty on the inside and black on the outside. Rumi described in Masnavi (1258 AD) that bad deeds of a person were as the smoke blackening the outside of a pot. The idiom was also the title of a Persian children story book.
- In Polish, the phrase goes Przyganiał kocioł garnkowi, which means "The kettle reprimanding the pot"
- A Romanian equivalent saying is "The pot shard laughs at the broken pot" (Râde ciob de oală spartă). The accuser (the shard) is even more guilty of the very flaws he blames the accused (the broken pot, which is implied to still be somewhat usable and not completely shattered) of. There is no other implied relation (i.e. kinship) between the two characters, as it is not a requirement for the shard to come from the same broken pot he accuses.
- In Serbian it is Rugala se sova senici kolika joj je glava. (Cyrillic: Ругала се сова сеници колика јој је глава.) ie "The owl mocked the great tit (bird) for having a large head".
- In Turkish, a similar phrase goes like Tencere dibin kara, seninki benden kara which means "Pot your bottom is black, yours is blacker than mine".
- In Vietnamese, people usually use the idiom Chó chê mèo lắm lông (The dog mocks the cat about its thick fur) which has the same meaning.
In popular culture
- The Australian Celtic punk-folk band The Rumjacks uses this idiom in a quasi-eponymous song called "The Pot & Kettle".
- The American rock band Wilco has a song titled "pot kettle black".
- The American progressive rock band Tool has a song titled "The Pot", which talks about hypocrisy.
- Rucker, Derek D.; Pratkanis, Anthony R. (2001). "Projection as an Interpersonal Influence Tactic: The Effects of the Pot Calling the Kettle Black". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 27 (11): 1494–1507. doi:10.1177/01461672012711010. S2CID 143834719.
- Waldman, Katy (2014-12-22). "Is It Kosher to Talk About the "Pot Calling the Kettle Black"?". Slate. Retrieved 2019-02-03.
This saying, which personifies kitchenware in order to make a point about hypocrisy, means "to criticize someone for a fault you also possess."
- Saavedra, Miguel de Cervantes (1740). The History of the Valorous and Witty Knight-Errant Don Quixote of the Mancha. Vol. 4. Translated by Thomas Shelton. London. p. 208.
Printed Verbatim from the 4to. Edition of 1620
- Cervantes, Miguel (2004-07-27). "67". Don Quixote. Translated by John Ormsby.
- Etxabe, Regino (2012). Regino Etxabe. Diccionario de refranes comentado. Madrid. ISBN 9788479605278.
- Julia Cresswell (2010). Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins. p. 339. ISBN 978-0199547937.
- William Penn (1909–1914). Fruits of Solitude. The Harvard Classics. pp. 445–6.
- Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. Harper & Tow. 1962.
quoted at Phrase Finder
- "St Nicholas Magazine 3.4" (PDF). February 1876. p. 224. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-07-01.
- Francisco Rodríguez Adrados (1999). History of the Graeco-Latin fable. Vol. I. Leiden NL: Brill. p. 146. ISBN 9004114548.
- Grimm, Jacob; Grimm, Wilhelm (1909). Folklore and Fable. Vol. XVII. New York. p. 30. ISBN 9781616401375.
- "The Words of Ahiqar: Aramaic proverbs and precepts". Syriac Studies site. Archived from the original on 2012-01-26.
- "Blemish". www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org. Retrieved 2020-09-09.
- "Kas Yra Puoadas?". Archived from the original on 2 December 2013. Retrieved 23 February 2014.
- Dehkhoda, Ali Akbar (1931). Dehkhoda Dictionary. University of Tehran Press.
- Hable Roodi, Mohammad Ali (1640). جامع التمثیل [Fables Compendium] (in Arabic). ISBN 978-6226441391.
- Sanā'ī Ghaznavi, Hakim Abul-Majd Majdūd ibn Ādam (1131). Hadiqat al Haqiqa.
صحبت ابلهان چو دیگ تهی است / از درون خالی از برون سیهی است
- Balkhi (Rumi), Jalal al-Din Muhammad (1273). "Book 2, Chapter 97". مثنوی معنوی [Masnavi-ye-Ma'navi].
چون سیه شد دیگ پس تاثیر دود بعد ازین بر وی که بیند زود زود
- AbuMahboob, Ahmad (1999). دیگ به دیگ می گه روت سیاه سه پایه می گه صل علی [Pot Calls the Other Pot Black, Three-Legged Stool Says 'Bless You'] (in Persian). Zeitoon. ISBN 9789646364486.