Saturday, July 22, 2017

Pot refers to Kettle

In defense of sunshine and happiness and kittens everywhere I would like to bring to your attention a deficit in the English language. It has to do with the phrase "That's the pot calling the kettle black." There is nothing per se wrong with this pejorative burn. It can be a useful rejoinder to one who criticizes another over something that they themselves are guilty of. In my life there's a lot of pot calling the kettle black at my library job over other people not working, which is why I like to stick to complaining about people not working effectively, and strive to defend, even sometimes against my inclinations, my co-workers' chatting, Internet surfing, reading, and standing around complaining.

But that's all negative in the end. What about the sunshine and kittens version of pot calling kettle black? What does one call it when someone arrayed in a dazzling collection of antique Lalique jewelry admires your ring? What could I say if I did something amusing and Steve Martin happened to be standing nearby and said "Good one."? What if Jane Austen wrote a comment on my blog that said "That was a lovely turn of phrase." I mean, besides thanking her for coming back from the grave to tell me and everything.

Yesterday a man at the library with the most massive hair I have ever seen, piled in wild curls extending more than a foot from his head, had some business to transact with me at the front desk of the library. At the end, in parting, he said "I like your hair."

"That's the pot calling the kettle black" as a response seems not quite right, harsh and hostile for no reason. "That's the frog calling the leaf green" just seems odd, imitative, and confusing. I suppose I could have gone with "That's like John Coltrane calling me cool." But I didn't think of it at the time. So in the end I simply went with "I'm sorry. I don't accept personal comments about my appearance at the desk." 



  1. This idiom always seemed like some mean old racism to me so i googled it. Though it's abstact of projection and displacement has ancient antecedent, our more modern details suggest the other is ugly and unclean.
    We both understand our society well enough as to speak this thing publicly might require courtesy.

    1. I agree about courtesy, but only if the use is challenged. As I'm sure you found there is no likely or specific correlation, other than one that would cause us to cease nearly all our vast uses of the word "black", which is a far larger argument and discussion.

      One origin I saw was Don Quixote! Don Quixote is good enough for me!

    2. I would not want to be challenged on this. My efforts at discretion would have failed if it came to that.
      But maybe I'm timid. When someone scowled at me on the street and said i looked like General Lee i went right home and shaved.

    3. Well, if you shaved then everyone will be shaving in two years.

  2. In Hungarian the equivalent is "that's like the owl saying to the sparrow that he has big eyes". As to the opposite phrase, as it is probably actually quite rarely used, it is not surprising that it doesn't really have an idiom connected to it. I think I would just use "say's you!"

    1. One could make the argument that the opposite is so rarely used because there is no phrase for it, and I might make that argument, but I'd like to take it before a focus group first. I like the owl/sparrow one. We so rarely get a quality Hungarian take on this blog.

      While "say's you!" is more on the negative side, in context it could be a cheeky and affectionate positive version retort, but I'd still be interested in a vanilla "pot kettle" opposite, even if just for academic purposes.

      Thank you for your thoughts on this.


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