Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Kettle – Podictionary Word of the Day

iTunes users can subscribe to this podcast

The word kettle has referred to some kind of cooking pot for thousands of years.

Our English word comes from Germanic stock because it appears in Old English pretty early, back before the year 700. There is a related Latin word but it isn’t clear that English got it from Latin either directly or indirectly.

One possibility is that it is such an old word that it evolved into the roots of both Latin and Germanic languages from an earlier source. I don’t see any references that say it was Indo-European, but if there was an earlier source Indo-European would be the prime suspect.

Another potential is that it was a word that passed between the Romans and Germanic peoples in the centuries before the Anglo-Saxons paddled north across the English Channel. If that was the case, from my vantage point I have no way of knowing if it was the Romans who gave it to the Germanic speakers or the other way around.

It definitely didn’t come to English through French since the Old English citations predate the Norman Conquest.

Exactly what kind of cooking pot the word kettle referred to has changed. The Latin word seemed to refer to a low shallow pan and even as recently as 250 years ago Samuel Johnson defines a kettle quite differently than I would have. He said:

“In the kitchen the name of pot is given to the boiler that grows narrower towards the top, and of kettle to that which grows wider.”

The expression “the pot calling the kettle black” brings back memories for me of the old TV show All in the Family where Archie Bunker once misquoted it, saying “the black calling the kettle pot.”

I guess that was a sign of Archie’s racism but for our purposes it underlines the confusion over which was which back before people used kettle to specifically refer to things with spouts.

“The pot calling the kettle black” supposedly dates from the 1600s and comes from a time when pots and kettles were used on open fires so both of them would have been black with soot. I note that the citation immediately before that Samuel Johnson quote reads:

“We say, The Kettle called the Pot Black-Arse.”

This from a Spanish-English dictionary of the same era by a guy named Peter or Pedro Pineda. So I’m not sure if that was the English expression or the translated Spanish expression.

This Peter Pineda was producing his dictionary in London around the same time that Johnson was, so one wonders if they knew each other.

Writing a dictionary is quite a labor that requires the cooperation of a number of people. So it’s no surprise that when Samuel Johnson wrote his dictionary it was a bit of a strain on his publisher.

Still in those days the publisher and the printer and the bookseller were all the same guy and in Johnson’s case this guy was Andrew Millar. When Johnson sent in his last page Millar sent him this note:

“Andrew Millar sends his compliments to Mr. Samuel Johnson, with the money for the last sheet of the copy of the Dictionary, and thanks God he has done with him.”

By return post:

“Samuel Johnson returns his complements to Mr. Andrew Millar, and is very glad to find (as he does by his note) that Andrew Millar has the grace to thank God for anything.”


Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.

Recent Comments

  1. [...] they make no effort to maintain themselves. This phrase is actually “Johnsonian”, as in Samuel Johnson and not [...]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *