Pot, Meet Kettle

I used the expression "pot calling the kettle black" the other night, and the person I was speaking to replied, "That's a racist expression, you know."

Well, I had certainly never heard that, or thought of it that way. I've always just assumed that it came from both a pot and a kettle being black, and, therefore, for one to call the other black is just ridiculous when it is the same thing.

So, I turned to my old friend Google. Here's the best explanation I could find:
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: "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. (Note from ESC: iron pots and kettles are already black when new.) 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.'"

Here's another good explanation.

The only real mention I could find of the possibility of this being a racist term comes from this discussion board. I, personally, don't rely too much on information from discussion boards - there is no reason to believe that any of the commenters are linguists or historians. For all you know, they can be the same dumb people you wouldn't bother to listen to in a debate in person.

Here's a quote that I liked though:
What is it that you (i.e. the objector, as a black person,) find so objectionable about the phrase? Would a Native American object to the phrase "A stop sign calling a fire engine red"? Would an Asian American object to "a banana calling a lemon yellow"?

Actually, I like that quote so much, I'm thinking about using either of those two alternative quotes now. Or, maybe in the interest of avoiding any possibly racist colors I should make up one of my own. How about "That's like the grass calling the pinetree green?" Yeah, I know, kind of lame. And it might insult the leprachauns. Or the Irish. Maybe I should pick a color that can't possibly offend anyone - but what color is that? I'll have to put more thought into it.

So, anyone else? Any thoughts? I may not trust strangers on a discussion board, but I trust my readers. Anyone else think that this is a racist phrase?


  1. Anything anyone says in any context can be interpreted to be offensive, if you look hard enough. Some people work very hard at finding things about which to be offended (on their own behalf or on others'). I feel bad for them. "The pot calling the kettle black" is not a racist phrase in any sane universe.

  2. What an interesting post and topic! I never thought of that expression as racist either. And, yet, upon googling it, it appears that many believe it to be so. That fact alone is enough to convince me to avoid using it.

    I found a good article here: http://communities.ic.org/90/4490.php

    Here's a great quote from that article:

    "Do not equate bad, depressing, or negative things with darkness. Observe how language reflects racism:

    a black mood
    a dark day
    a black heart.

    The meaning of the word "denigrate" is to demean by darkening. Be creative. There's thousands of adjectives in the English language that do not equate evil with the way people of color look. How about instead of "the pot calling the kettle black," you say, "the pus calling the maggot white"? Think of and use positive dark and black imagery. Dark can be rich and deep and cool and sweet."

    I had no idea that the word denigrate had that specific undertone either.

    I recently posted on my blog re: a NY appellate court's decision re: gay marriage, and the idea that the law itself was discriminatory as written based upon the underlying assumptions made by the legislators when it was drafted. I suppose the same could be said of out historical references and the roots of our language and expressions as it relates to racism.

    Anyway, I digress. Great post. Very thought provoking.

  3. It doesn't have to make sense. Words are given meaning, especially connotative meaning, by how they are used and by who is using them. For example, consider how a bunch of right-wing pundits have managed to turn the perfectly good "liberal" (meaning having to do with freedom) into something of an insult.

    Many racist words (or sexist words) got to be that way because they were used against minorities. For example, to me the word "midget" sounds like a perfectly neutral description of someone with an unusually short stature, but "dwarf" sounds like an attempt to ridicule short people by comparing them to mythical creatures.

    As it turns out, however, "midget" has a long pejorative history, so "dwarf" is the word preferred by people who are...dwarfs. And despite the vague deprecating sense I get from the phrase "little people," the leading dwarf advocacy group is called "Little People of America."

    My point, if I can dig one out of all this, is that what you mean by a word or phrase isn't all that matters to the people who hear it. They hear the history behind it as well.

    The bottom line, I think, is that some people may take offense at words for stupid reasons, but if enough people take offense, we have no choice but to change what we're saying in order to communicate what we mean.

    1. But there is no history of this phrase being used to offend. There are just ignorant folks looking to be offended.

  4. For all the frat boys, how bout: the roofie calling the pina colada white?

  5. I think the first time i heard someone object to the phrase was Omorosa from the Apprentice.

    I thought it was absurd because I heard the phrase before and never thought of it as being racist.

    But now that I think about it again, I can see where someone may be offended. The phrase is usually used when describing someone doing something hypocritical. The phrase has a definite negative connotation.

    I think most Asians are offended by being called yellow...

    I think old phrases have a chance of being racist even if they don't seem so bad.

    In highschool I learned that "eenie meanie miney moe, catch a tiger by its toe" was incredibly racist. I guess about 30-40 years ago the phrase wasn't about tigers...

    To make matters worse we made a banner in reference to the inner city public high school called the "tigers."

    I think sometimes you just have to accept that certain things you say have checkered pasts...

  6. I can't think of a single color that wouldn't offend anyone. Orange would offend people from Syracuse. Purple might offend drunks. Blue, maybe, but then there's the Celts.

  7. Nice topic BJ

    My vote is for not racist...

    The pot calling the kettle black could only be seen as a racist statement if the kettle was assumed to be silver or copper.

    C'mon, it's an old saying used at a time when wood burning stoves left soot on any cookware.

    "eenie meanie miney moe, catch a tiger by its toe"

    Thats a new one on me...racist huh?

  8. IMO, it's patently silly to think that phrase is racist. I've had similarly silly accusations when using the word "niggardly" in print, which means "cheap" or "chincy," but has nothing to do with the same-sounding racial epithet.

    Some folks make a hobby of being offended, BJ, the way you and I make a hobby of blogging. I think we have more fun.

  9. People can find anything racist if they want to. Some years back when we lived in Virginia, I remember a big to-do because some engineering or manufacturing company had decided that its employees couldn't refer to jigs (you know, those really useful shop tools, think jigsaw) as jigs because it could be deemed offensive. I hadn't run into the term 'jigaboo' before, but apparently it's incredible derogatory, and therefore every black person who heard a shop floor worker talk about a jig was going to automatically assume that they were using a shortened form of the epithet and be offended. Just as the term niggardly is obviously used to insult blacks.

    Everyone I knew who heard about this, no matter their skin color, had the same reaction: "Huh?!?"

    So if you want a racially neutral, PC phrase you'll have to come up with one using white, since we're the only ethnic group who cannot legally be insulted by any "racist" comments.

  10. My favorite substitution comes from an argument between me and my best friend over whose behavior was more "anal retentive." My husband said, "That's like the rectum calling the sphincter anal," and we've used it ever since.

  11. How about: "That's like the Pot calling the Acid addictive."

  12. Wow, people get stupider every day. Awesome.

  13. I remember once writing something about Washington DC having a lot of spooks. I meant spies (and more generally, members of the intelligence community), but I guess in some parts of the country it's a common epithet for black people.

  14. aah i see someone already alluded to the niggardly debacle a while back

    well how about lets call a spade a spade?

  15. Ahh, the PC police are out in full force. Anyone else remember when Denny's was called Sambo's?

  16. If you think about it, it is racist. Why? Well, the reason the phrase “the grass calling the pine tree green” (as suggest above) does not work is because “calling” alwayse precedes something derogatory. “He called me fat” sounds normal in English. But what about “He called me beautiful” it doesn’t work. “He said I was beautiful” sounds better. So green is not derogatory but the phrase “Pot calling…” implies that being black is a bad thing. Besides idioms make people sound stupid anyway. Just avoid the whole issue by forming your own sentences.

  17. I disagree. If someone said to me, "He called me the best kisser he ever knew," I wouldn't think it was an awkward sentence or that it was an insult.

    Similarly, if someone said, "That's like the pot saying that the kettle is black," I don't think it would change the meaning.

    I think the word "calling" is just a more succint way of saying "said to me that I am..."

  18. I suspect the phrase did originate with a racist connotation. I can understand why many people disagree with this idea. It might seem like the fact that they're both the color black is just an unimportant fact, that the expression could just as easily be the pot calling the kettle silver. But the color black was used. Why? Because being black, calling someone black, was a derogatory thing. And being a called a hypocrite (the meaning of the phrase) is a derogatory thing. You simply can't ignore the fact that it is AT LEAST POSSIBLE that the expression was originally racist, whether you use it that way or not. White people, even completely unbigoted white people, are sometimes quite blind to things that are subtly racist. Racism will never be eradicated until we start acknowledging it. On the other hand, it is just a silly little phrase and people shouldn't get their panties into a twist about it. But let's be honest about its possible origins.

  19. its just a saying, any racist connotations it may (and i don't think it ever did) have held are long gone in the minds of its users.

    also, have we not considered that the reason black is used as a negative term is because of the light and dark of heaven and hell. nothing to do with skin tone. black, as a colour, has always had negative connotations (the night etc) just as white is seen as pure (the day), green as fertile etc etc

  20. the light and dark of heaven and hell are not universal, neutral concepts, nor have they been used that way. christianity has been used to justify and promote all kinds of atrocious things in this country (and others). identifying black as evil and white as good was not an ideology founded outside of a racist culture. it may be that the concepts are old, but that does not mean they are neutral. i believe it was around the time of Augustine that these color associations were debated and solidified by religious scholars -- particularly catholic ones-- and the choice of colors was made because of the power structure of the day, not because white and black have innate connotations of good or evil. a lot of white men were in power and chose specifically to use white as the pinnacle of goodness - go figure. egocentrism? yes racism? yes
    language is power.

  21. Had my supervisor threaten to take me to HR for saying this once, because it is racist. He actually compared it to the phrase "Get your cotton picking hands off of.." (which is by far more racist in connotation)

    As far as I knew it was a phrase meaning vaguely "dont point out one's flaws when you yourself are flawed". I dont think it had anything to do with race or darkness/evilness... its a pot blackened by the fire ... nothing more.

  22. Why do we call white people white??
    they are pink!
    j/k j/k


  23. White is a much better descriptive color for light i.e. sunlight, than black. Light the thing that brings life to all things on Earth, is commonly worshipped for this reason and therefore represents good. The darkness which is well described as black has been connected with evil/lack of life. These ideas were created by people like the druids and pre-druid societies who have never seen the races that we see everyday. When I went to Guatemala last year there were people who had never seen a white person before. If they made an expression like this one, we would not say that it was created by hatred.
    Thank you to everyone on this blog for dicussing this in an adult manner rather than lashing out at people who are dicussing race. It is a pleasure.

  24. I once used this phrase at work several years ago and was accused by a nice but overly sensitive black lady of uttering a racial slur. I thought it was the craziest thing I had ever heard but could not convince her of the truth.

  25. Here's a thought: How many of the folks who are distainful of those concerned with the possible racist overtones of the saying are African-Americans? If you are and you say it's not offensive, I'll be much more inclined to think so. Otherwise, is it such a burden to be careful, especially in a country in which racism is so much a part of our history and still pervades the society? Why risk offending? I won't.

  26. Racism is so deeply engrained into language especially the English language that most people do not even know they are rascists themselves.

    There are no accidents when constructing phrases. It is not by accident that white is associated with good and black is associated with bad.

    And that thought process crosses the boundary of inanimate objects.

    Don't whitelist me.

  27. Of COURSE it's racist. Why else would the pot call the kettle 'black', unless being black was intrinsically a bad thing. They could have chosen ANY two objects with similar colors, but purposefully chose two things that are black becasue being black is considered a 'bad' thing.

  28. The idiom obviously has a historical past likely based in America. I looked up "kettle" in the dictionary as it was described as a "metal (shiny)" pot. I looked up "pot" as well and it was described as usually made from iron and the color was black. I don't believe that people are being racist when they use the statement. However, if one object is shiny and the other object is black then the idiom takes on a whole new meaning. Basically, meaning the same thing: "You can't tell me anything." In the case of shiny (light/bright) vs. black (dark/dull) objects, could be a throwback to our American racist past. Enough said. Question: Is the idiom "A spade is a spade" racist? I always thought so but my friend said it wasn't. I remembered that Blacks used to be called "spades" and that's why I didn't like the saying. Again, I checked the dictionary and spade was described as racist term used in the past. Food for thought--I thought. I believe that we should be kinder to each other and I try to choose my words carefully as not to offend anyone.

  29. Choosing to censor yourself in fear of offending someone will probably render you mute. As there are close to 7 Billion people on the planet, virtually anything one says could be understood (or misunderstood) as insulting to someone else. We happen to live in a society that not only favors free speech, but vigorously protects it.

    The question should not be about whether or not something one says might sound racist, but whether or not one is a racist. Bigots tend to be pretty easy to spot, not for what they say, but for what they do.

    And finally, if someone's mind is still saddled with the ignorant notion that somehow the color black equals negativity, and that using the phrase in question makes its speaker a racist.... well, that's a perfect example of....

    Pot calling kettle....
    Come in kettle....

  30. i used to teach english in a high school and whenever "pot calling kettle black" expression would come up, i would always ask the students to say instead, "that's like the snow calling the cloud white" and, of course, it made no sense because the original one comparing black things really hits home because it is a comparison of an insult. being black is supposed to be so horrible, so bad that when a person says or does something where one can use this comparison, saying "that's like the pot calling the kettle black" is really like saying "Ha, ha, you are both black -- not to mention disgusting

  31. Interesting, but I think this debate is missing the mark. The demeaned target of the phrase is the pot, not the kettle. The pot is the hypocrite, not the kettle. So the phrase, when placed in human terms (in order to be racist) is an example of an inconsiderate, unobjective, ignoramus who doesn't even know him/her self (the pot) making an observation. Racism and idiocy typically go together.

    To assume this phrase as racist, it mandates the assumption that black is inferior. Regardless of color, if that's one's belief, then they, not the phrase, is racist.

  32. "This is like a fridge calling a dishwasher palefaced."
    I hope those comments don't offend any self-proclaimed species-sensitive vampires.

  33. Had my supervisor threaten to take me to HR for saying this once, because it is racist. He actually compared it to the phrase "Get your cotton picking hands off of.." (which is by far more racist in connotation)
    This person's comment should have been the end of the debate:

    "As far as I knew it was a phrase meaning vaguely "dont point out one's flaws when you yourself are flawed". I dont think it had anything to do with race or darkness/evilness... its a pot blackened by the fire ... nothing more."

    not racist at all

  34. "If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him."
    --Cardinal de Richelieu

  35. Ignorant people.... The word black was used ! Why? Because its an insult and bad to be black? No! Because everything blackens from wood burning stoves ? Maybe true but no. The reason..... Wait for it.... Because most all cooking implement , pots , pans , kettles in the time of Don Quiotxe ( spelling ?) we're made of CAST IRON! Black by nature . Not of Steele or copper unless you had money wich would not be the case in that particular piece of literature . Stop being so sensitive! The phrase cautions against being a hypocrite the origin means nothing it's the CURRENT use and meaning that apply. I.E. that's bad! That board is sick! My child has special needs! All phrases containing word with varied meaning over time and the last "special" a word destroyed by cultures need to sanitize language that has been or could be used in a negative way. When you replace phrases or word like retarded with words like special , in the end the new word or phrase gets used the same way and eventually becomes no longer politically correct " what's wrong are you special or something?" " he rides the short bus, he's special " "ahhh aren't you just special " and all the time English language get stripped of words and phrases specific to the tast.... Look up retarded... It has a meaning and applies only negatively when used that way. Just like the pot and kettle. I may not want to be "handicapped" but changing the word because I don't like my condition does not leave me any less "challenged" and learning to cope and adapt does not leave my legs any less "disabled", and it sure as hell does not make me "handycapable" . Which is just a completely "retarded" word !