The pot, the kettle, and the coffee

Personification. That’s what you call it when you assign human characteristics to inanimate objects. It’s also the root of two of my favorite idioms and what makes them so interesting.

The first phrase sets up a little quarrel between two kitchen items — “it’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black.” When people cooked with cast iron over a fire, all the pots and pans would turn equally black from being exposed to the flames. So when the pot points out that the kettle is black, it’s pointing out a quality they both share.

This saying reminds me of the Foxfire books, which document life in Rabun County, Georgia, and Appalachian life and culture. They describe in great detail the women waking up long before daylight to start cooking over the fire, hanging the pots and kettles from metal rods over the fire. In my mind’s eye, there’s one little pot simmering away and mischievously singing, “Hey kettle, you’re black. Hey kettle, you’re black. Hey, kettle…” Of course the kettle gets so mad at the little, teasing pot because it is blind to it’s own foolishness that steam blows out if its nose.

Of all the sayings I know, however, the following one is a particular favorite. My folks are coffee drinkers, and we like our coffee strong. I remember that my grandparents would pour a cup of coffee, add sugar and milk, then pour a little of the hot drink into the saucer and sip it from there. But have you ever gotten a cup of coffee that was so pale you could see the bottom of the mug? Flavorless. Sad. Glorified stump water. My grandfather, Baw, would say that coffee is “so weak it’s staggering in the cup.”

So weak it was staggering in the cup. I can just picture that old coffee reeling around in the cup, Fred Sanford-style, clutching at it’s heart and calling for Elizabeth. Weakly, it rests against the side of the cup, to poorly to even mix with the milk which just swirls in a heavy, white cloud in the middle. Too sapped to melt the sugar.

It would be so easy to describe mundane, everyday things with mundane, everyday language. But when you imbue the ordinary with extraordinary characteristics — human characteristics, you paint a mental picture that illustrates your point for your listener. That’s the art of the idiom.