A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (120)?…


A watched pot never boils

Have you ever put something in the microwave, set the timer on and then stood with growing impatience as the dial seems to take an age to get to zero? Of course, whether we look at the dial or not, the time will take just as long to pass but it does seem to perceptibly slow down if all you are doing is waiting for something to happen. Our phrase reflects this, although it uses a degree of poetic licence because the pot will boil. It will do so in its own time and the idiom cautions patience.

Benjamin Franklin, the well-known American polymath, may well have coined the phrase or, at least, was the first to commit it to print. From 1732 to 1758 Franklin, under the pseudonym of Richard Saunders or Poor Richard, published an annual almanac which was full of folksy household tips, puzzles, commentaries on the weather and improving aphorisms, many around the need for industry and the evils of sloth. Our phrase never made it into Poor Richard’s Almanack, as it was called, but when Franklin used it he gave his nom de plume a name check.

Franz Mesmer, whose surname gave rise to the term mesmerising, was kicking up a storm with his theory of animal magnetism, whereby energy was transferred from animate to inanimate objects. When he was the US ambassador to France, Franklin was commissioned by Louis XVI to write a report about the sensational theory. In 1785 he published it. It was not a totally dry exposition on the subject because, inter alia, it included an account of the trials and tribulations of waiting for one’s breakfast. “I was very hungry; it was so late. A watched pot is slow to boil, as Poor Richard says”. Not an exact match but the sense is there and for an author being self-referential is never a bad thing.

It was another sixty years before the idiom we use today appeared in print, courtesy of one of my favourite authors, Elizabeth Gaskell. In her Mary Barton, published in 1848, she wrote, “What’s the use of watching? A watched pot never boils, and I see you are after watching that weathercock”. These days we are more likely to use kettle than pan but the sense remains the same.

Pots and kettles appear in another phrase in common usage, the pot calling the kettle black. This is used to call someone who has been guilty of hypocrisy. The sense is fairly obvious – in the old days kettles and pots would be heated over a naked flame and the bottoms of the vessels, at least, would char over time. The idiom first appeared in Thomas Shelton’s 1620 translation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, “You are like what is said that the frying-pan said to the kettle, avant, black-browes.

A favourite variant of mine appeared in 1639 in John Clarke’s Paroemiologia Anglo-Latina, “the pot calls the pan burnt-arse”. It was left to William Penn in his Some Fruits of Solitude in reflections and Maxims to provide the definitive usage and to make crystal clear its sense. He wrote, “for a covetous man to inveigh against Prodigality, an Atheist against Idolatry, a Tyrant against Rebellion, or a Lyer against Forgery or a Drunkard against Intemperance, is for the Pot to call the Kettle black”.

Time for a cup of coffee, methinks, if I have the patience to let the kettle boil.


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