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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 Is the idiom considered outdated or offensive by young people?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. – Blessed Geek Sep 15 '13 at 4:34
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is a survey. – RegDwigнt Dec 7 '14 at 22:25
  • One question per question, please. – Lightness Races in Orbit Dec 10 '14 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 '17 at 8:27
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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 '14 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 '14 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."

  • 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 '14 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 '14 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 '14 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.

  • That is funny. People should use that, as well. – Tristan r Apr 15 '14 at 23:16
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    @SrJoven Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs. – jlovegren Dec 8 '14 at 18:32
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    The 1620 citation is attributed to Shelton's Don Quixote translation. – jlovegren Dec 8 '14 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 '14 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 '14 at 2:04
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    Despite the lack of references, very concise, yet explanatory. – GlennFromIowa Feb 3 '17 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 at 16:33

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