The pot calling the kettle black

Example in use: “She criticised me for leaving 15 minutes early on Monday! Did you know that I saw her come back from lunch 30 later than she should have. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!”

Meaning: used if the very thing you criticise someone else for could well be used for yourself

Possible German equivalent: ein Esel schimpft den anderen Langohr

Possible origin: Sources suggest that this idiom can first be found in Cervantes’ Don Quixote from 1620:

“You are like what is said that the frying-pan said to the kettle, “Avant, black-browes”.”

At that time, pots, pans and kettles were all made of cast iron which would go very black in the cooking fire when exposed to the flames. Therefore, all cooking equipment would be black and one would not be better or cleaner than the other.

This expression became popular in English through its use by William Penn, who founded Pennsylvania, in 1693. However, a very similar use of the metaphor was used much earlier in 1606 by Shakespeare in Trolius and Cressia, “The raven chides blackness.” For a raven to criticise the darkness for being black is obviously hypocritical.

There is also some thinking that suggests it might also refer to the pot being black, as explained above but the kettle would have been made of copper and would retain its shiny surface. Therefore, the pot would be seeing itself in the reflection of the kettle and again, the criticism against the kettle would be meaningless.

The visual meaning of both these sayings make this idiom an easy one to understand and remember although today, the phrase “it takes one to know one” is probably as common in a way to throw back a criticism at the critic.

kettle / ˈketl


Welcome again to our weekly series that hopes to go behind the scenes of some rather typical English expressions.