The pot calling the kettle black
"The pot calling the kettle black" is a proverbial idiom that seems to have been of Spanish origin, versions of which began to appear in English in the first half of the 17th century. It is glossed in the original sources as being used of a person who is guilty of the very thing of which they accuse another and is thus an example of psychological projection.
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, of which one 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 la 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 version 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."
Apart from the final example in this passage, there is not a 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 (being placed on a fire), the kettle is shiny (being placed on coals only); 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".
- 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?"
- The dictionary definition of pot calling the kettle black at Wiktionary
- Phrase Finder
- Regino Etxabe, Diccionario de refranes comentado, Madrid 2012
- Julia Cresswell, Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, 2010, p.339
- Lines 445-6
- Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, by William Morris, Mary Morris
- Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1870, revised by Adrian Room (Millennium Edition)
- St Nicholas Magazine 3.4, February 1876, p.224
- Francisco Rodríguez Adrados, History of the Graeco-Latin fable I, Brill, Leiden NL 1999, p.146
- Folklore and Fable vol.XVII, New York 1909, p.30
- The Words of Ahiqar: Aramaic proverbs and precepts, Syriac Studies site