Monday, May 29, 2006

Like The Pot Calling The Kettle Purple

Isaac Asimov supposedly once asked his daughter, “Why is the sky blue?”, and she’d confidently responded, “Because it’s not purple!”. That sure beats delving into refraction and the electromagnetic spectrum.

In English, color is a funny thing.

I came across an article entitled “Meles vs. Mengistu: The pot calling the Kettle Black”. The point the author made was that Mele himself has a lot to be judged by and when it gets to his turn, “One hopes it does not take 15 years for justice to be meted”.

Yeah, Meles sucks. Yeah, Mengistu sucks. However, my preoccupation with the article was more to do with its title. This title would obviously make no sense if it was “Meles vs Mengistu: The Iris calling the African Violet Purple”, or “Meles vs. Mengistu: The Dough calling Snow White”. My gut instinct was that the origins of "The Pot Calling The Kettle" is from times when being black was of lower stature in Western cultures. So I did a little bit of research which revealed other ways of looking at the proverb.

The saying 'that's like the pot calling the kettle black' is a very old saying. It means 'You've no real cause to say these things to me because you fit into the same category' or more simply 'look in the mirror, you're no different'. But the part about the pot and the kettle comes from way back in history, probably when the western U.S. was first being settled, and people cooked with cast iron pots and pans. The tea kettle was black, the dutch oven cooking pot was black and so the analogy was formed 'pot calling kettle black'.

I could almost believe this except “the post calling the kettle black’ is usually said by a third person looking at the ‘pot’ and the ‘kettle’ from a higher ‘moral’ ground and passing the judgment that the ‘pot’ and ‘kettle’ are both worthless.

But then Blonde Justice delves into its origins from “Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins” which gives two possible meanings. One is that calling the kettle back is ridiculous because they are both black. “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.”

Hmm. Let's keep in mind this is coming from dictionaries that define themselves with currents of time. Like the way The Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary copy I had while growing up had sample sentence to go along with words. For the word famine, and that sentence was ‘Famine in Ethiopia’, which of course was very true in 1984, and still is true now. Hopefully it will not be true in another half century or so, but my copy of the dictionary will still be around.

So …to believe or not to believe? I dunno. I say we change the proverb to, ‘The pot calling the kettle purple’.

Another English term that bugs me is ‘white trash’. I am pretty sure I had read Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’ before I came to this country, but … I don’t remember what I felt about it. Years after I came to the US, and having had a different view of the American ghetto than what’s depicted in ‘Coming to America’, when I opened the book a second time, the term white trash stuck me funny. The narrator, who was black and poor, was referring to poor white people as ‘white-trash’. Perhaps this is the case of the pot calling the kettle purple.

What finally struck me about the term white-trash was that it is so offensive to black people. And to all other people of ‘color’. A black person with a low socioeconomic status is simply called a black person. A Latino with a low socioeconomic status is called a Latino. After all, what is so strange about these people being poor? A white person who is poor is not just white, but a white-trash, the scum of what should otherwise be a spotless race. White needs hyphenation, the rest are trash anyway.

Is there another way of looking at it?

Ah. God bless America, indeed! Yibarkat'm, yimarat'm!

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