Q&A: Origin of ‘pot calling the kettle black’

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're calling the pot shots…

Q: Hey AWC, where does the phrase “the pot calling the kettle black” come from? 

A: Good question. First up, do you know what it means?

Q: Yes – it’s when you accuse someone of something that you’re guilty of yourself, right?

A: Yeah that’s the one. And it actually celebrates its 400th birthday in 2020.

Q: Wow really? That’s a fire-extinguisher-at-the-ready’s worth of candles on that cake!

A: It sure is. The original phrase comes from a 1620 translation of the Cervantes novel Don Quixote: “You are like what is said that the frying-pan said to the kettle, ‘Avaunt, black-brows’.”

Q: Avaunt?

A: It’s a now-archaic expression meaning “go away”.

Q: So what were these black-brows the kettle had? Did they get them at one of those places out in the middle of the shopping mall?

A: Haha no. It was just a fancy way to describe the build up of soot from heating up cast iron on the fire – the same soot that the iron frying pan also would have had.

Q: No induction cooktops in the 17th century…

A: Exactly. Not to be outdone, Shakespeare had earlier offered up a similar sentiment – “the raven chides blackness” – in his 1602 play Troilus & Cressida. And a 1639 proverb rephrased the Don Quixote line as, “the pot calls the pan burnt-arse”!

Q: Seriously? That’s some shocking utensil language!

A: It sure is. By the late 1600s, the saying had evolved into what we see today. Another shortened contemporary version is “pot, meet kettle”.

Q: My kettle is electric and my pots are stainless steel. This phrase doesn’t really relate to my life.

A: Well, as we’ve said before, that’s idioms for you. They are merely a snapshot of their time – and often hold their meaning only through a shared understanding of something absurd meaning something else.

Q: Are there other sayings that mean a similar thing?

A: Yep – “He who is without sin, cast the first stone”.

Q: Oh, I never understood trigonometry. 

A: Huh?

Q: Sorry, was on a tangent.

A: Actually, you might like the alternative theory to a grimy pot calling an equally soot-laden kettle black. In this other version, the kettle is actually a shiny metal one – so shiny that the pot still calls it black but – and here’s the twist – it’s actually seeing its OWN reflection!

Q: Ooooh that’s an M.Night-Shyamalan-worthy meaning right there! 

A: It is. A whole different kettle of fish.

Q: Ohhh another kettle saying. Is that old too?

A: Not quite as old – “kettle of fish” is from 1715, probably Scottish.

Q: And finally, what about “out of the frying pan and into the fire”?

A: That’s the oldest of all these – attributed to England’s Thomas More in 1532 and meaning to go from a bad situation to an even worse one. Rather fitting really, as Thomas went from telling King Henry VIII he couldn’t get remarried in the Catholic Church to having his head chopped off.

Q: Yeah, that is definitely worse. No More Thomas…

A: Okay, enough talk. Let’s put the kettle on. How do you take your tea?

Q: Black.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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