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Morris explanation

Posted by ESC on January 02, 2000

In Reply to: Pot calling the kettle black - ethnic slur? posted by Donna Finley on January 01, 2000 at

: It's clear that "the pot calling the kettle black" refers to criticism that could equally apply to the critic. But why is "black" a criticism in this phrase? I am specifically wondering if this is one of those nasty ethnic slurs that is left over from a time when such things were more commonly spoken, or if some other interpretation might apply. Any ideas or information? Please send an e-mail. Thanks.

POT CALLING THE KETTLE BLACK - The "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins" by William and Mary Morris has more detail about this phrase than other reference books. (Note: iron pots and kettles are already black, even when new.) Judge for yourself whether the phrase has racial connotations. I guess that issue hinges on whether the color black being associated with "evil" has a connection to racial prejudice towards dark-skinned people:

"There are two slightly varying interpretations of this phrase, which is used figuratively to apply to persons. One theory is that such action is ridiculous because they are both black, presumably from standing for years on a wood-burning stove or in a fireplace. So the pot as well as the kettle is black (evil) and neither one is better than the other. This supports the explanation of the phrase as given in 'Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable': 'Said of one accusing another of faults similar to those committed by himself.'

The other theory is that the pot was black but the kettle polished copper and the pot, seeing its own blackness reflected in the shiny surface of the kettle, maintained that the kettle, not it, was actually black. In any event, it seems that the best, if slangy, retort by the kettle may have been: 'Look who's talking!'

Usually the source of the phrase is given as Cervantes' 'Don Quixote' and simply as 'The pot calls the kettle black,' but another version of Don Quixote comes out as: 'Said the pot to the kettle, get away black-face!' Henry Fielding, eighteenth century writer, reverses the roles in 'Covent Garden Tragedy': 'Dares thus the kettle to rebuke our sin!/Dares thus the kettle say the pot is black!' Even Shakespeare used the idea in 'Troilus and Cressida': 'The raven chides blackness.'"