‘The Pot Calling the Kettle Black’: Definition, Meaning and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on May 27, 2023

Did someone use the phrase 'the pot calling the kettle black,' and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.

The idiom 'the pot calling the kettle black' is an old phrase that is used to point out hypocrisy or psychological projection. It means that a person is accusing another person of a behavior or fault that they themselves are guilty of.

What Does 'The Pot Calling the Kettle Black' Mean?

'The pot calling the kettle black' is an idiom that is used to point out another person's hypocrisy when they accuse or criticize someone else for a behavior or flaw that the accuser themselves possesses.

  • When you use this phrase, you're suggesting that the person you're talking to is guilty of the same thing that they're criticizing in you or someone else.

The use of this phrase intends to deflect or discredit a claim of wrongdoing by accusing the person that originated the claim of similar flaws or behavior.

  • In the realm of philosophy, this type of argumentative strategy is considered a tu quoque logical fallacy.

Where Does 'The Pot Calling the Kettle Black' Come From?

At first glance, this seems like a very strange idiom. What would it mean for the pot to call the kettle black?

  • There are two interpretations of the etymology of this phrase, but one is more common than the other.

We'll explore the more often cited phrase first.

  • The first interpretation is that the bottom of both pots and kettles made out of cast iron will turn black when they are hung over a fire. Therefore, if the pot were to call the kettle black, it would be accusing the kettle of something that could also be said about the pot itself.
  • The second interpretation, which is said by some sources to be the less likely origin, is that a clean and shiny kettle will appear black to a pot due to being able to see its own reflection. The pot is, therefore, in this theory, actually accusing the kettle of something that only the pot possesses.

History of 'The Pot Calling the Kettle Black'

Some sources say that this idiom is of Spanish origin due to its appearance in Don Quixote. The first appearance of 'the pot calling the kettle black' in English showed up in the first half of the 1600s.

The first time this phrase shows up in print is in the famous 1620 Spanish novel Don Quixote. In the story, the protagonist is getting increasingly restless due to his servant, Sancho Panza, criticizing him.

The Spanish text reads:

Dijo el sartén a la caldera, Quítate allá ojinegra

(Said the pan to the pot, get out of there black-eyes).

In John Clarke's 1632 collection of proverbs recorded soon after Don Quixote, it notes the phrase "the pot calls the pan burnt-arse."

We find another example from the 1692 collection by William Penn, Some Fruits of Solitude in Reflections and Maxims:

"If thou hast not conquer'd thy self in that which is thy own particular Weakness, thou hast no Title to Virtue, tho' thou art free of other Men's. For a Covetous Man to inveigh against Prodigality, an Atheist against Idolatry, a Tyrant against Rebellion, or a Lyer against Forgery, and a Drunkard against Intemperance, is for the Pot to call the Kettle black."

For one more example, let's look at an anonymous poem that was published in St. Nicholas Magazine in 1876:

"Oho!" said the pot to the kettle;
"You are dirty and ugly and black!
Sure no one would think you were metal,
Except when you're given a crack."

"Not so! not so!" kettle said to the pot;
"'Tis your own dirty image you see;
For I am so clean – without blemish or blot –
That your blackness is mirrored in me."

Similar Historic Phrases

There are a number of other phrases that stem from antiquity that have similar themes that are worth exploring:

  • "The Snake and the Crab"-- Shares a similar meaning to 'the pot calling the kettle black,' where a critic is accusing another person of behavior that he himself possesses. The phrase relates to one of Aesop's fables, where a mother crab instructs its child to walk straight before being asked to demonstrate walking in a straight line.
  • "The Mote and the Beam"-- Appearing in the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible, this refers to words spoken by Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus asks, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?"
  • "Ahiqar"-- This is a story that dates back to 500 BC that shares a similar theme to 'the pot calling the kettle black.' In this particular tail, a bramble accuses a pomegranate tree of being thorny, while the pomegranate responds by telling the bramble that "Thou art all thorns to him that toucheth thee."

Examples of 'The Pot Calling the Kettle Black' In Sentences

How would 'the pot calling the kettle black' be used in a sentence?

Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • "Josh actually had the nerve to say that we never spend time together because he's always asking me to hang out, and I say no. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black."
  • "Did you hear what she was saying to me? She accused me of never cleaning up after myself. I've never seen a more spot-on instance of the pot calling the kettle black."
  • "Every time he and I talk, we get into an argument. He's always criticizing me for things he does himself-- a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black."
  • "My dad is always yelling at other people when he's stuck in traffic, saying that they're being rude. Meanwhile, he's screaming at the top of his lungs. Pot calling the kettle black, much?"
  • "I can't believe you said I looked old in that photo. Not to be rude, but you're really being the pot that called the kettle black."
  • "You say that I'm always cranky when I get home from work? Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!"

Other Ways to Say 'The Pot Calling the Kettle Black'

What are some other words and phrases that are used to point out people's hypocrisy?

Here are some options:

  • People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones
  • Talking out of both sides of one's mouth
  • Preaching water and drinking wine
  • Do as I say, not as I do

Final Thoughts About 'The Pot Calling the Kettle Black'

'The pot calling the kettle black' is an old idiom that is used to point out a person's hypocrisy or psychological projection. In philosophy, this type of argument is known as a tu quoque logical fallacy because it is used to deflect or discredit an accusation of wrongdoing by pointing the same criticism back at the accuser.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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