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Pot calling the kettle black - ethnic slur?

Posted by Elmer Paine on September 13, 2001

In Reply to: Pot calling the kettle black - ethnic slur? posted by The Critic on January 02, 19100 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.

: : I thought that the 'black' in the saying referred to the soot which accumulates on pots and kettles which are used on fire stoves. Maybe the 'black' in this case is a criticism because it's not very nice to have black soot marks left on the table or wherever the kettle is placed? Just my personal interpretation, I don't have any book references.

: In the days when cooking pots and kettles where placed over open fires to heat the contents they accumulated a great deal of soot on their exteriors and the color of one was indistinguishable from the other: that color was the black as one might expect with finely divided carbon in the form of soot - a percentage of which is in the relatively recently discovered carbon 60 form by the way.

: Therefore to use the expression 'Pot calling the kettle black' was to indicate to the listener that there was absolutely nothing to choose between one of two or more positions, people, behaviors etc.

: I fear you must look elsewhere for ethnic slurs but remember the Good Book says 'Seek and ye shall find'; equally, don't forger that homily of Eastern origin - 'Beware of what you want'.

I am afraid that explanation makes no contectual sense in the way the phrase is typically applied in "common" usage. Fact is, in the context of the way the phrase has always been used (and, I have to admit, I am guilty of using it in the past), the implication is being called "black" as in "the pot calling the kettle black" in indeed a criticism and has no place in the modern lexicon.

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