Welcome to Lexicon Valley’s new feature, “Is That Kosher?” A fuller linguistic arsenal leads to richer, chewier, more diverse expression—but when is the usefulness of a piece of language outweighed by the pain it causes? In “Is That Kosher?” we’ll reflect on certain words or phrases that lie in the margins of acceptability. Today’s idiom: “the pot calling the kettle black.”
This saying, which personifies kitchenware in order to make a point about hypocrisy, means “to criticize someone for a fault you also possess.” Per WiseGeek, the phrase dates back to the early 1600s, when most pots and kettles were fashioned from cast iron, a material that acquires streaks of black smoke when heated over a flame. Thomas Shelton’s 1620 translation of Don Quixote contained the line, “You are like what is said that the frying-pan said to the kettle, ‘Avant, black-browes.’ ” And in 1693, William Penn, father of Pennsylvania, wrote that “for a Covetous Man to inveigh against Prodigality … is for the Pot to call the Kettle black.” (Earlier, Shakespeare approached the same idea in Troilus and Cressida, when a character protests, “The raven chides blackness.” There is also a long history of parables and adages that attack hypocrisy more generally, such as the Greek myth of the two sideways-scuttling crabs and the Biblical injunction not to “beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye” without considering “the beam that is in thine own.”)
Other sanctimonious metalware sightings: A 1639 collection of proverbs by John Clarke offers a more colorful variant on Cervantes: “The pot calls the pan burnt-arse.” And in his 1922 gleaning of international folk sayings, Dwight Edwards Marvin links our sooty pot and kettle to a constellation of related grimy appliances from France (“the saucepan laughs at the pipkin”), Russia (“the shovel insults the poker”), and Ireland (“the kiln calls the oven ‘Burnt House’”).* There is also, Marvin writes, a Bengalese sieve that scoffs at a needle for “having a hole in your tail.” A vulture that mocks a civet cat for smelling bad. A leaf that makes fun of another leaf for shriveling and falling off a bough.
But we have not convened a court to assess whether the kettle and the kettle’s friends should be outraged by the pot’s hypocrisy (or even whether the epithet “burnt-arse” is inherently insulting). We are here to talk about why reasonable people have been known to flinch from the phrase’s undertones: Could it be racist?
This question came up when a Slate writer hesitated to use the idiom because he worried about the way the pot cast “black” as a negative attribute. The saying only works, he pointed out, because at least one of the pieces of kitchen equipment perceives blackness as undesirable. If there were no stigma attached to blackness, or if a silver pot were remarking on the complexion of a silver kettle, the observation wouldn’t boil over into accusation. In their sociology textbook Making Sense of the Social World, authors Barbara Scott and Mary Ann Schwartz echo this concern: They cite “the pot calling the kettle black” as an example of “symbolic terminology” smuggling in “negative ideas about individuals and groups.” And perhaps it doesn’t help that, historically, the saying has turned up in racially freighted situations. “There has been a good deal of ‘POT AND KETTLE’ in the stories from the British and Boer camps since the war began,” the Western Gazette, an English newspaper, reported during the country’s 1900 campaign in South Africa. Gone With the Wind contains a scene in which Scarlett O’Hara compares Rhett Butler to the hypocritical black pot after he questions her loyalty to the “glorious” Confederate cause.
It is true that, in the context of the expression, “blackness” does not come off as a neutral trait. On the other hand, “black” means something very different when you are a kettle instead of a person. It has less to do with race than with the physical reality of soot and grime accumulating on a shiny surface. That Clarke’s pot is able to rephrase Cervantes’ frying pan—to target the kettle’s singed bottom rather than his dark brows—without sounding any less rude suggests that blackness is just a shorthand for the real problem: being burnt, streaky, and smoky. In the same way, the idiom might lose its bite if it described, say, a glossy grand piano pointing out the sheen on a black leather chair. Black isn’t automatically bad. It’s just bad when you’re a dirty skillet.
Two apocryphal readings of the idiom suggest that its message is more nuanced than “light fair, dark foul.” The first draws on the idea that a 16th or 17th century pot was usually warmed over an open fire, while a kettle would have been placed on top of glowing coals. The pot would have gathered layers of soot from the burning wood; the kettle would have stayed clean and mirror-like. So when the pot looks at the kettle, what he’s really seeing is his own grubby reflection. The saying is thus about projection—about being blinded to the rest of the world by your own issues; it almost doesn’t matter whether the misassigned attribute is positive or negative.
In another interpretation, the “pot” is actually an ornamental china teapot talking to a teakettle. The pot’s perception is spot-on: She is lovely and ceremonial and without blemish, whereas the kettle directly absorbs the flame that heats the water. What the pot’s not grokking, though, is that the kettle does the dirty work that allows her to maintain her gleamed-up allure. Both pieces of crockery matter to the tea ritual, but she gets the glory. The expression, then, refers to generosity, sacrifice, and the importance of gratitude; blackness isn’t an inferior inborn trait but a sign of the kettle’s selflessness. It’s a badge of honor.
Verdict: Kosher. I vote against casting these cast-irons into Tartarus, on the grounds that they embody human dynamics that have nothing to do with race. (Also, blackness in the idiom doesn’t necessarily connote shame.) In the spirit of having options, though, here are some alternatives: That’s the Vitamix calling the Cuisinart loud, the Sagittarius calling the Aries starry-eyed, the Wi-Fi calling the narrator unreliable, the Monica calling the Ross competitive, or, for those after a very explicitly race-blind evocation of hypocrisy, the pot calling the kettle sooty specifically from being over the fire.
*Correction, Dec. 22, 2014: This post originally misidentified Dwight Edwards Marvin as Dwight Edwards Martin.