The pot calling the kettle black

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Black pot and kettle

The phrase "The pot calling the kettle black" is an idiom used to claim that a person is guilty of the very thing of which they accuse another.

Interpretations and origins[edit]

As generally understood, the person accusing (the "pot") is understood to share some quality with the target of their accusation (the "kettle"). The pot is mocking the kettle for a little soot when the pot itself is thoroughly covered in it.

An alternative interpretation, recognized by some,[1][2] but not all,[3] sources is that the pot is sooty (being placed on a fire), while the kettle is clean and shiny (being placed on coals only), and 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 the St. Nicholas Magazine:

"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."[4]

Similar themes in antiquity[edit]

  • In Ancient Greece, mention of ‘the Snake and the Crab’ signified much the same idiom. The first instance of this is in a drinking song (skolion) dating from the late 6th or early 5th century BCE.[5] 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.[6]
  • 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".[7]
  • In the Gospel of Matthew 7:3, Jesus is quoted as asking, during the discourse on judgmentalism in 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?"[8]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, by William Morris, Mary Morris
  2. ^ Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1870, revised by Adrian Room (Millennium Edition)
  3. ^ Pot in Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, by E. Cobham Brewer, 1898 edition
  4. ^ St Nicholas Magazine 3.4, February 1876, p.224
  5. ^ Francisco Rodríguez Adrados, History of the Graeco-Latin fable I, Brill, Leiden NL 1999, p.146
  6. ^ Folklore and Fable vol.XVII, New York 1909, p.30
  7. ^ The Words of Ahiqar: Aramaic proverbs and precepts, Syriac Studies site
  8. ^ Matthew 7:3–5 New International Version