Phrase of the day: pots and kettles

Going dutch and other negative traits

So last week I was in the Netherlands and I was chatting with a group of teachers when someone asked why we have the phrase ‘’We can go Dutch’ in English. Actually, I personally don’t use this phrase very much myself, preferring to say instead ‘Shall we just split the bill’?, but I’ve heard it used and I didn’t have any idea where it comes from. Fortunately, a Dutch Professor of English was present! He told us that all these phrases, such as go Dutch, speak double Dutch and Dutch courage (which are nearly all negative), basically date back to the 18th century when Britain and the Netherlands were at war and  the English spread propaganda about those terrible Dutch people. So the Dutch were proclaimed to be tight (don’t like to spend money); to talk nonsense or speak an incomprehensible language (he might as well have been talking double Dutch for all I understood!); or being cowards and having to rely on alcoholic drinks to help them get through something they’re too scared to do otherwise (I need a bit of Dutch courage)!

The pot calling the kettle black

My response to that, apart from ‘Well, you learn something new everyday, was ‘Well, that was the pot calling the kettle black!’, which basically means we were being hypocritical. We might also say ‘Well, it takes one to know one’ – in other words, someone’s accusing someone of having a bad trait, of being something bad, such as being tight, when they are actually also tight themselves. I mean, let’s face it,  the British aren’t necessarily the most generous people in the world. Just take a look at the suggestion among some UK politicians that we will pay nothing to settle our debts when we leave the EU.  And as for the need for a drink to get through pretty much any social event or difficult situation . . . Well, the writer Kate Fox has described this as a symptom of our a very British social dis-ease and awkwardness: think of most characters played by Hugh Grant! No doubt these characteristics were not so different in the 18th Century.

Pots and kettles

Not that the British are unique in ‘The pot calling the kettle black’. I guess it’s a tendency among most people to see flaws in others, but not recognise them in themselves, so it is good to have a phrase to point this out. It is also interesting in the way this phrase is used. Like many sayings in English, it is often used in an incomplete form so you might have an exchange like this:

  • Oh my word! She’s so untidy!
  • > Ahem, pots and kettles, pots and kettles.

You can also see this in another idiom which points out that you are walking on shaky ground in criticising someone.

  • Honestly, the whole thing was so badly organised.
  • > I know, but you know – people in glass houses
  • Oh come on. I’m not that bad.
  • > No, but I’m just saying.

The full phrase here would be people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

Want to learn more about with Lexical Lab? Take one of our summer school courses.

  • Do you have any phrases in your language that refer to other nationalities? What do they mean? Are they all negative? Do you think it’s OK to use them these days?
  • What are your bad traits? Do you think your nationality has any bad traits or don’t you believe in national traits?
  • What are the equivalent phrases in your language for the idioms in the text?
  • Do you normally say the whole of a saying in your language or do people often shorten them?
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5 Responses

  1. Ameenah Hajeej says:

    Thank you for these highly helpful daily posts. I have to admit that I have learned much more from regularly reading them than from any other vocabulary book. Providing the cultural and historical contexts in which words were first used helps in better understanding their meanings and use, and remembering them.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Hi Ameenah –
      Many thanks for the kind words.
      Really glads you’ve been finding them helpful.
      It’s always good to understand a bit more about the background to certain phrases and to get a better sense of the contexts of use, etc.
      Really lovely to know they’re being enjoyed.

  2. Ameenah Hajeej says:

    As to answering your questions which are related to today’s post, I can think of only one phrase used in my dialectal language (a combination of arabic, french and Tamazight-a tribal language) in reference to French people. The phrase is ” living à la française”, i.e in a french way. The phrase surprisingly has a positive meaning, if you say, ” somebody is living à la française”, It means he is leading a rich life. I think its origin goes back to the time of the French colonisation, when
    colonisers were seen as rich people spoiling themselves by exploiting the wealthy resources in the country.

  3. Paul Davis says:

    Althought the 4th Anglo-Dutch war was in the C18th the first three were actually in the C17th.

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