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I would like to know something more about this idiom and how North American or English speaking people use it.

  1. Is the idiom considered outdated or offensive by young people?

  2. When is "pot calling the kettle black" most commonly used, in formal or informal occasions?

This question was prompted by my teacher who told me that young people were probably unaware of its origins and its true meaning.

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    Is this an "American" idiom? It is an English idiom that originated before USA became a country. Sep 15, 2013 at 4:34
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is a survey.
    – RegDwigнt
    Dec 7, 2014 at 22:25
  • One question per question, please. Dec 10, 2014 at 11:24
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    @BlessedGeek: It's also a Dutch proverb/idiom. (De pot verwijt de ketel dat hij zwart ziet.) It occurence in Dutch indeed makes it highly likely to have originated in Europe before migrating to America.
    – Flater
    Sep 29, 2017 at 8:27

6 Answers 6

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WiseGeek.com says:

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.

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.

Phrases.org.uk defines its meaning as:

The notion of a criticism a person is making of another could equally well apply to oneself

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    Hmmm...I think cast iron is black when new in the store.
    – Mike
    Apr 16, 2014 at 4:27
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    @Mike Most cast iron you would buy today is "pre-seasoned" meaning it has been heated and oiled a number of times to protect it. Look for unseasoned cast iron, and you will find that it is dark but decidedly gray.
    – techturtle
    Jun 24, 2014 at 14:48
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WiseGeek, the source of Benyamin Hamidekhoo's answer, rightly notes that both the pot and the kettle "turn black with use." That is, they start out a silvery or grayish or coppery color and gradually turn black through exposure to the heat and smoke of the fires or heating elements that they are set above. However, I disagree with WiseGeek's contention that the essential meaning of the saying would be preserved if it were reworded (for the modern sanitary kitchen) as "the pot calling the kettle silver." In my view, one crucial aspect of the original saying is that, in the world of anthropomorphic pots and kettles, being black is an undesirable trait—and that calling a receptacle black, even if the receptacle's blackness is incontestably true, is an insult. Without the element of insult, we might as well have a saying about "the apple calling the strawberry red"—which we don't.

The metaphorical idea at play here is that a clean pot or kettle is like an uncorrupted person, but that through exposure to "blackening" elements—or even perhaps to day-to-day life—the receptacle's original color, like the person's innocence, is lost. It is deeply hypocritical for one receptacle (or person) to criticize another for possessing an undesirable characteristic that (in truth) both of them possess. And as with the blackness of the pot and the kettle, the corruption of both the accuser and the accused doesn't make the accusation of corruption any less of an insult. Having said that, I do share WiseGeek's view that the saying has no intentional racial overtones.

The saying is rather pessimistic, it seems to me. After all, what is more natural than that a pot and a kettle—without the intervention of some vastly more powerful being in the scullery—should turn black in the course of their duties? James Branch Cabell points out something similar with his apothegm: "A man's hands are by ordinary soiled in climbing."


Update (June 27, 2022): A look at the early days of enmity between pots and kettles

As noted by user31341 in a separate answer, a version of this proverb appears in a 1620 translation of Don Quixote:

No more Prouerbs, Sancho, (said Don Quixote) since each of these is enough to make vs know thy meaning, and I haue often aduised thee, not to be so prodigall of thy Prouerbs, but more sparing: but 'tis in vaine to bid thee; for the more thou art bid, the more thou wilt doe it. Mee thinkes, Sir, said Sancho, you are like what is said, that the Frying-pan said to the Kettle, Auant, blacke-browes; you reprehend me for speaking of Prouerbs, and you thred vp yours by two and two.

Another early instance of the proverb occurs in Robert Hayman, "The Third Book of Quodlibets," in Quodlibets Lately Come Ouer from New Britaniola, Old Newfound-land Epigrams and Other Small Parcels, Both Morall and Diuine (1628):

67. To fault-finding more faulty Zoilus. / When others faults thou dost with spite reueale, / The Kettle twits the pot with his burnt taile.

A 1657 translation of Don Quixote (reprinted in 1687) mentions the proverb twice:

Why, what four Proverbs would you have better then these? First, An Humble-Bee in a Cowturd thinks himself a King— and agen, He that Thatches his House with a Turd shall ha' more Teachers then Reachers— And agen, The Horse thinks one thing, and he that rides him another— And agen, Tickle my Throat with a Feather and make a Fool of my Stomach. What a dekins ayls yee, would yee have better Bread then is made of Wheat? They that so easily see a Mote in another Mans Eye, should do well to take out the Beam i' their own, lest the Pot call the Kettle Black-arse.

...

By my Faith, Sir, quo Sancho, you put me in mind of another Proverb, as pat as a Pudding to a Fryers Mouth—The Porridge-Pot calls the Kettle Black-arse— you reprove me for talking Proverbs, and bring 'em out your self by dozens at a time—But you don't consider, Sancho, quo Don Quixote, that those I speak are to the Purpose—but thou fetchest 'em in by Head and Shoulders without Rhime or Reason.

From James Howell, Paroimiographia Proverbs, or, Old Sayed Sawes & Adages in English (or the Saxon Toung), Italian, French, and Spanish (1659):

The Frying-pan told the Kettle, get thee hence thou black ars.

From Samuel Fisher, Rusticus ad Academicos in Exercitationibus Expostulatoriis, Apologeticis Quatuor: The Rustick's Alarm to the Rabbies (1660):

A Coming together there is for Customes sake in their Best Cloathes, as finely as they can afford to do, when their (supposed) Sabbath comes about in its turn; a sound comes from a Money-Merchants mouth, and enters in at one Ear of the People, as fast as it can get out at the Other; and while it stayes, it Swims in the Head, but sinks not down to Renew the Heart; and some Psalms may be Sung to the Praise of him, whom the Dead in Sin, that live Sin, cannot praise; and so there's an end of the businesse for that day, till it come again; till when, Hell breaks loose, and the Devil is served for the most part all the Week after; insomuch that it is but for the Kettle to upbraid the Pot with its black ugly Hue, for the Priest and his People to make Narratives of the worst of that Naughtinesse, that is found among the very worst of those that are own'd as one in Fellowship by the Quakers, and their Ministry.

From Joseph Hall, "The Woman Taken in Adultery," in The Contemplations upon the History of the New Testament (1661/1679):

It is but just there should be a requisition of innocence in them that prosecute the vices of others. The offender is worthy of stoning, but who shall cast them? How ill would they become hands as guilty as her own? What doe they but smite themselves, who punish their own offences in other men? Nothing is more unjust or absurd, then for the beam to censure the moat, the oven to upbraid the kiln. It is a false and vagrant zeal that begins not first at home.

Hall died in 1656, so the cited passage above is from somewhat earlier than the publication dates would suggest.

From a 1662 translation of Giovanni Torriano, The Second Alphabet Consisting of Proverbial Phrases Interpreted and Illustrated Where Most Necessary : With Pleasant and Usefull Annotations, Italian and English (1662):

Padella, a fryingpan. Dir come disse la pa∣della al paiuolo, i.e. ogni un faccia i fatti suoi, anche fatti in là cul negro, che tù mi tingi, to say as the fryingpan said to the pot, viz. every one about his business, also stand off black arse, thou dost smuch me; the Devil corrects Sin.

The word "smuch" may be an OCR misreading of "smirch," although I don't have access to the original to the original text to check this conjecture.

From John Ray, A Collection of English Proverbs Digested into a Convenient Method for the Speedy Finding Any One upon Occasion (1670):

The kettle calls the pot black a—

...

The kiln call's the oven burnt-house.

From William Penn, Some Fruits of Solitude in Reflections and Maxims Relating to the Conduct of Human Life, second edition (1693):

386. For a Covetous Man to inveigh against Prodigality, an Atheist against Idolatry, a Tyrant against Rebellion, or a Lyer against Swearing, and a Drunkard against Gaming, is for the Pot to call the Kettle black.

387. Such reproof would have but little Success; because it would carry but little Authority with it.

And from B.E., A New Dictionary of the Canting Crew in Its Several Tribes of Gypsies, Beggers, Thieves, cheats &c. (1699):

The Pot calls the Kettle black A---, when one accuses another of what he is as Deep in himself.


Further thoughts on pots and kettles

Unhappy interactions between pots and kettles go back quite far in English literature. The earliest instance that a Early English Books Online search finds is from a 1539 edition of the Bible (specifically, Ecclesiasticus:

Who so toucheth pytche, shall be fyled withall: and he that is famylier with the proude, shall clothe hym selfe with pryde. He taketh a burthen vpon hym, that accompanyeth a more honourable man then hym selfe. Therfore kepe no familiaritie wt one yt is rycher then thy selfe. How agre the kettle and the pot togither? for yf the one be smitten agaynst the other, it shall be broken. The ryche deleth vnryghtously, and threteneth withall: but the poore being oppressed and wrongously delt withal, suffreth scarce¦nesse, and gyueth fayre wordes.

Evidently, the sense of this passage is that yhe kettle is made of metal and the pot of clay. That at any rate is the implication of the wording used in Andrew Kingesmill, A Viewe of Mans Estate Wherein the Great Mercie of God in Mans free Iustification by Christ, Is Very Comfortably Declared (1574):

There is a good péece of counsel in the .13. of Ecclesiasticus, concerning those with whome we may not win familiaritie, for he sayth: Burthen not thy selfe aboue thy power whilest thou liuest, and company not with one that is mightier and richer than thy selfe: for howe agrée the Kettle and the earthen pot togither? For if the one be smitten against the other, it shall be broken. Wherefore in thys behalf an equalitie were a goodly propertie.

I was also interested to learn that pots were sometimes set inside kettles of water in order to separate them from direct contact with fire, perhaps something like a double boiler. For example, from a 1565 translation of FGirolamo Ruscelli, The Secretes of the Reuerende Maister Alexis of Piemount Containyng Excellent Remedies Against Diuers Diseases, Woundes, and Other Accidents:

Take oyle of the eldest you can finde, and boyle it the space of an houre, & for euery poūd of the said oyle, put in .l. scorpiōs, or as many as you can get, put all this in a pot vncouered, the which pot you shall set in a kettle or caudron of boylinge water, vntill the thirde part of the oyle or somewhat lesse bee consumed.

Of possible relevance here to the proverb of "the pot calling the kettle black" is the fact that, in the scenario described above, the bottom of the kettle or cauldron would be blackened, but the bottom of the pot would not. In effect, the kettle shields the pot from getting blackened. If this were the original scenario envisaged by the proverb, the pot's criticism of the kettle's appearance would be doubly inappropriate because it would be turning the kettle's interceding between the pot and the fire (for the pot's benefit) into a source of mockery.

However, this speculative interpretation of the proverb is not supported by the history of the expression, in several ways. First, the earliest form of the proverb (from 1620) involves a frying pan and a kettle, not a pot and a kettle. Second, when the pot dos make its first appearance (in 1628), the instance has the kettle twitting the pot for its "black taile." And third, there is no reason to suppose that the pots in any occurrence of the proverb re imagined to be earthenware, rather than metal and thus kept from direct (and blackening) contact with fire and smoke.

The proverb "the pot calling the kettle black" has early counterparts in Spanish and Italian. It may very well have originated in one of those countries, albeit with a frying pan in place of a pot.

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  • If it is natural to be black, then the pot should not be chiding the kettle for its blackness. If you use the equation that black=bad as the adage does, then the pot should be looking into improving his own blackness rather than calling out the kettle.
    – Oldcat
    Apr 15, 2014 at 23:16
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    "If it is natural to be black, then the pot should not be chiding the kettle for its blackness." And the fact that it is is what evokes hypocrisy.
    – Joe Z.
    Apr 16, 2014 at 1:15
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    I'm not sure it's the black color per se, but rather that both items are presumably covered in dirty soot. I've never detected a racist tone in the saying (and I was raised in an environment where racist intent would probably have been made known if present).
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 7, 2014 at 15:17
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The idiom or something like it is attested in writing as early as 1620

The pot calls the pan burnt-arse (1639).

(Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs;
The 1620 citation is attributed to Shelton's Don Quixote translation.)

I am from the US and I learned the expression from my mother at the age of 8--10 therebouts.

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  • That is funny. People should use that, as well.
    – Tristan r
    Apr 15, 2014 at 23:16
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    @SrJoven Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs.
    – user31341
    Dec 8, 2014 at 18:32
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    The 1620 citation is attributed to Shelton's Don Quixote translation.
    – user31341
    Dec 8, 2014 at 18:37
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Saying in Ireland; the "Kettle calling the pot black arse" means simply that the very fault you accuse the other of, you have yourself. The kettle and pot are both black from the open fire/cooker.

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    Welcome to ELU. Please consider providing sources for your answer and expand on why your answer is significantly different or offers different information or insight from those that have already been posted.
    – SrJoven
    Dec 7, 2014 at 14:51
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    Not sure how this question escaped closure from 'general reference'. +1 for a TL;DR-non-wiki-answer.
    – Mazura
    Dec 10, 2014 at 2:04
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    Despite the lack of references, very concise, yet explanatory. Feb 3, 2017 at 23:02
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I understand it to mean that a person is guilty of the same thing she is accusing another person of, often in greater degrees than the accused, and so has no right to be derogatory to him. I like Wikipedia's synopsis: "As generally understood, the person accusing (the "pot") is understood to share some quality with the target of their accusation (the "kettle")." It also has the connotation of hypocrisy. Wikipedia gives a list of similar phrases, parables, and stories in English and other languages, such as the ancient Greek concept of "the Snake and the Crab," and the phrase, "those that live in glass houses should not throw stones."

I best like the explanation of the origin by commenter mark on answers.yahoo.com. He points out that regardless of whether the kettle is seen as black (as the pot is black) or polished metal, "for one to accuse the other of being black points out ignorance of oneself in accusing another (sort of, it takes one to know one)."

These are all common English words, so I would not find it difficult to read or pronounce. This question seems to have value only in comparing it to other idioms.

This idiom would only be used in informal situations. It often is used jokingly, but can be construed negatively, so one would want to have some familiarity with the listeners before using it. Our family has a variation we say to each other when one complains about something that is at least partially characteristic of the one complaining: "Hello pot, meet kettle!" I also sometimes use a variation of it to soften the impact when pointing out a problem with someone else: "I say this as a pot talking to the kettle" -- indicating that I am not being derogatory about the person, as I am guilty of, or perhaps struggle with the problem also.

I am a college-educated professional who works in the area of Information Systems (computers).

Apparently among the internet generation today, it is sometimes shortened to "pot, kettle, black." See also yahoo link above and the definition on the internet's Urban Dictionary.

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I felt quit difficult with this idiom when I heard it for the first time. But I realized the right meaning of this idiom. This idiom focuses on those who tries to hide their own faults and blame others for their mistakes. There is no right for that man who blames others without correcting himself. It is very easy to blame others. But before that one should check himself/herselves whether he/she is right or not.

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    Welcome to English.SE! This answer does not add anything relevant which is not already covered by the existing answers.
    – Rosie F
    Jan 31, 2019 at 16:33

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