Where is a pot a kettle?
April 27, 2022 5:44 PM   Subscribe

My houseguest wants to make soup. I pulled out an appropriate cooking vessel and declared it to be "the biggest kettle." My houseguest, after shooting me a confused look, declared that to be a fine pot, but in no way a kettle. To them, a kettle is exclusively a tea kettle with handle and spout. Indeed that is the first dictionary definition. My use of the term is the second definition. So we are wondering, is this a regional thing?

We are both native USians (central states vs eastern states), so it's not a matter of US vs. UK English. Web search is no help; all results relate to "the pot calling the kettle black."
posted by evilmomlady to Writing & Language (39 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: NJ born and raised, living in NC for the last 5 years. I would on cal a tea kettle a kettle. Exception- kettle (pop)corn. But even if I made it at home, I wouldn’t call it a kettle. For some reason a kettle that isn’t for tea brings up an imagine of a large brass cauldron type item?
posted by raccoon409 at 5:50 PM on April 27, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Hmmm I guess I use kettle both for a tea kettle and for any pot with a handle. Colorado native. “Kettle of fish” seems to imply other than a tea kettle.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:53 PM on April 27, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I know that version of "kettle" - it's where we get "kettledrum". It's not what I would use myself but I would understand you if you did.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:55 PM on April 27, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah to me (grew up in New England, US) a plain old kettle would always be a tea kettle and the big kind of kettle, like you'd make kettle corn in, like a cauldron, is a more archaic use of the word and so would usually have some qualifier with it.
posted by jessamyn at 5:55 PM on April 27, 2022 [14 favorites]

Best answer: Raised in Ohio. A pot is a round container with a flat bottom and usually one or two handles (although a flower pot has no handles) I only use kettle for something dedicated to heating water - a tea kettle or an electric kettle. Although I recognize the phrases like a kettle of fish, it's not language I would ordinarily use.
posted by metahawk at 5:57 PM on April 27, 2022 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Australian: a kettle would never be used for anything except boiling water, and then you'd pour the hot water for tea into a mug or a teapot.

An archaic use is that a wash copper is a kind of kettle (but that's because it's used for heating water).
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:58 PM on April 27, 2022

Best answer: Midwest-born: If I heard 'large kettle' I'd understand that it specifies a large pot, but if you just say 'kettle', I assume tea kettle. In my own vernacular, I'd use 'stockpot' or even a 'canning pot' before I'd use 'biggest kettle'.

A search for XL Kettle in shopping strongly leans toward teapot kettles. I'd say that your usage is fading from favor very fast.
posted by hydra77 at 5:59 PM on April 27, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: From wiktionary- no primary source that I can find: In most varieties of English outside the United States (UK, Irish, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian), if not specified otherwise, kettle usually refers to a vessel or appliance used to boil water.

So perhaps this use (cauldron) occurs more often in the US, possibly in places with people of Swedish origin (kittel= cauldron, kettle)
posted by oneirodynia at 6:01 PM on April 27, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I feel like a kettle has a loop handle, and could theoretically be hung over a fire.
posted by Hypatia at 6:05 PM on April 27, 2022 [18 favorites]

Best answer: Yes, and the thing you hang it on is called a kettle hook.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:08 PM on April 27, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: As a junk food aficionado, there are also kettle cooked potato chips. I always imagined the kettle as a large, copper, open top cauldron.
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 6:30 PM on April 27, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The "kettle" in open kettle canning (a form of home canning that's no longer considered safe) is also a large wide-mouthed pot, not one with a spout. I don't know that this usage is a regionalism, but it's certainly an older term, early- to mid-20th century. Are you older than your friend?
posted by babelfish at 6:47 PM on April 27, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've always made the same distinction between "pot" and "kettle" that OP's houseguest did; however, people I know who were born here (Maine) define "kettle" as "stockpot."

I was born in eastern Pennsylvania and was raised in Maine by another eastern Pa native, who lived there until her early 30s, and a Gulf Coaster (Galveston, then New Orleans) who joined the Navy after college, then headed north.
posted by virago at 6:50 PM on April 27, 2022

Best answer: My mental image, too, is the sort of big cauldron-style pot that goes on a cooking fire. If someone used "biggest kettle" in regard to cooking something *now*, I'd assume they wanted my biggest stockpot, or at least, largest soup pot/ dutch oven.

But I don't think I've heard it used in regard to cooking on any sort of stove top since my grandmother was alive, and she used it to refer to one she kept on her "kitchen" wood stove. (It was really in the dining room. I've never wondered why til now.) She occasionally prepared food on that stove; it was shaped as though it looked like that was the intent.

Thinking about that... while grandmother (and most people I knew) kept some sort of teakettle on the wood stove to increase humidity in the house, we also had what I'd now consider a "mini cauldron" for the water. It was about the size and shape of those plastic pumpkins used for trick or treating, had a handle and a round flat lid with a upraised spot that would be the only opening if the lid was all the way on, and I think it was probably cast iron. Mom would move the lid slightly aside for more or less as needed. Just the lid was heavy. If I remember right, my parents called it a kettle.

That home burned down within a year of my grandmother's passing in the late 90s, so it's possible that word was lost from my commonly-used vocabulary as a result of either or both. In other words, correlation, not causation.

Odd how words get lost like that.
posted by stormyteal at 6:51 PM on April 27, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My family will sometimes call a large thin metal pot a kettle. So a water bath canner or an especially large stainless soup pot might be called a kettle. Canadians mostly hailing from the prairies.
posted by Mitheral at 6:53 PM on April 27, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Minnesota here: large stock pot is a kettle, thing for making water hot that whistles is specifically a teakettle, never without the 'tea' but who drinks hot tea anyway? It seems rare around here, people drink coffee around these parts.
posted by AzraelBrown at 7:04 PM on April 27, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have never ever thought of anything besides this (stovetop) or this (electric) as a kettle -- to me kettles heat up and boil water (and only water, unless you want to make your cleaning life harder), narrow at least somewhat toward the top and have a spout to pour out of. I would also have been confused as the OP's houseguest initially was.

I simultaneously know the expressions "pot calling the kettle black", "kettle of fish", "kettle chips" but nevertheless a "kettle" by itself is just the water-heating spout-pouring item. (Language is by no means 100% perfectly internally consistent so I have no problem believing all of these things).

For the demographics side of this, I'm in my 30s, grew up in southern California, and have lived as an adult in Chicago, Boston and New York City. For what it's worth I also cook quite a bit.
posted by andrewesque at 7:04 PM on April 27, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: (By the way I always love questions like this because of what they teach me about the diversity of language -- isn't it fascinating?!)
posted by andrewesque at 7:11 PM on April 27, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Raised in Minnesota but lived several other places as an adult:

In my family a kettle has always been a vessel for boiling water to make tea or other hot drinks. The secondary meaning is the archaic big iron vessel with a loop handle suspended over a fire which would only come up in conversation when saying something like "a different kettle of fish" and almost never referring to the actual thing.

Although I've always heard people refer to a "pot of coffee", if you just say "pot" I think of a teapot or a stockpot with two handles. A smaller, similar piece of cookware with one handle is a saucepan.
posted by theory at 7:29 PM on April 27, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My parents grew up about twenty miles apart in rural northwestern Tennessee. Dad would call a big cauldrony thing a kettle, Mom would call it a pot. (Their family accents are also entirely different, so.)
posted by mochapickle at 7:59 PM on April 27, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The fact that we still have the vestigial specification "tea kettle" is pretty strong evidence that non-tea kettles used to be common. My understanding is that a pot has side handles, and a kettle has an over-the-top handle.
posted by Jon_Evil at 8:43 PM on April 27, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Masshole here. A kettle and a pot are entirely different things. A kettle has a tapered shape, a handle, and a spout. A pot is, well, a pot.
posted by emd3737 at 9:24 PM on April 27, 2022

Best answer: The first thing I think of when I hear the word kettle is a large metal (copper or black) container with a loop handle over top, that goes on a fire rather than a stove top. The second thing I think of is "a fine kettle of fish."

Pots are containers that may or may not have handles on the sides(s) and may or may not be used for cooking. Sure, you have your stock pots, but you also have your flower pots and your pots of makeup.

I too think that the fact that we have the word 'teakettle' shows that there are other kinds of kettles.

I am from all over (born in Seattle, lived also in Montana, Oregon, Maryland, Germany, and Pennsylvania all while my age was still in the single digits).
posted by Flock of Cynthiabirds at 10:04 PM on April 27, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Huh. Connecticut here, and for me the word kettle generally means the electric or stovetop vessel for boiling water for tea. But I will also sometimes call a dyepot a kettle or dye kettle, and isn’t the giant tank/cauldron used for beer making called a brewing kettle?
The shape of these items vary but the connection is the boiling.
posted by janell at 11:06 PM on April 27, 2022

Best answer: Reading through the responses caused me to think of witches and possibly a witch's kettle. Searching for witch kettle turned up lots of results for witch cauldron which I'd already remembered as a more likely word that kettle. However, the wikipedia definition of cauldron was in the sidebar and that is:

> A cauldron is a large pot (kettle) for cooking or boiling over an open fire, with a lid and frequently with an arc-shaped hanger and/or integral handles or feet.

So at least some wiki editors agree that a kettle can be a large pot, AKA cauldron.
posted by Awfki at 2:26 AM on April 28, 2022

Best answer: I would only use kettle as something with a spout to boil water. If someone said, "I bought a kettle," I'd assume that's what it was. (US midwest, grew up in the 60s)

But "kettle of fish" is interesting here. I'm familiar with that expression, and I would think of that kind of kettle as what I would call a pot. So based on that, "kettle" seems to me that it once meant a kind of pot, but doesn't anymore.
posted by FencingGal at 4:42 AM on April 28, 2022

Best answer: US (currently New England) homebrewer here who uses a large kettle to boil water and wort and also asks his wife if he should put the kettle on to make a cup of tea. Never any confusion.
posted by Hey, Zeus! at 5:01 AM on April 28, 2022

Best answer: Also realized that to me a teapot is different than a teakettle. Partner independently generated kettle drum, kettle chips, and cauldron, but to them teakettle is the dominant usage and large pot for boiling seems archaic. They’re from Washington state.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:56 AM on April 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm from Florida originally. Currently live in New England. To me, kettle is something that you use to boil water (either on the stove or electric) that has a spout. I wouldn't use it for a pot, and like your house guest, would probably be confused by your use of kettle in this example.

I'm familiar with kettle corn and kettle chips, but I guess I never made the connection that "kettle" refers to the vessel used to make them.
posted by litera scripta manet at 6:29 AM on April 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Various answers have made reference to a kettle of fish. The fish kettle, used to cook fish, is a large pot. My mother has a fish kettle. We are in London, UK.
posted by boudicca at 6:41 AM on April 28, 2022

Best answer: Born in Northern California, raised in rural Pennsylvania, have lived in Chicago, Philadelpha, and Los Angeles as an adult: I would understand your usage of kettle, but only after a few beats to think about it and remember, “Oh, yeah, kettle is an old-timey word for big pot.” In my own language, I only use kettle to refer to a vessel with a spout that heats water, as a descriptor in grandfathered-in food items (kettle corn, kettle chips, etc), or idiomatically (“kettle of fish”).

I also have some vague sense that kettle is a more rural word, but that could just be an associative connotation from the image of a big pot/kettle hanging over the fire in a cabin, rather than connected to geographic patterns of actual word use.
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 7:06 AM on April 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I also have some vague sense that kettle is a more rural word, but that could just be an associative connotation from the image of a big pot/kettle hanging over the fire in a cabin, rather than connected to geographic patterns of actual word use.

You know, you've got me wondering if that's the case. Dad's family had been country farmers for generations and would have used a big kettle for cooking on the daily. Mom's family kept land, or did until they lost it all through gambling or tragedy, so maybe they had fewer uses for kettles.
posted by mochapickle at 7:26 AM on April 28, 2022

Also realized that to me a teapot is different than a teakettle.

Of course. A teapot is the vessel into which you pour your water (boiled in the kettle) to steep with the tea leaves.
posted by gaspode at 7:30 AM on April 28, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I'm in Canada, from the west and live in Ontario now, and to my mind if you use kettle to refer to a pot, you would mean the kind of black cast iron possibly footed cauldron that would appear in a Halloween illustration of a witch. Basically, if it's hanging over a fire in an old-timey kitchen with porridge in it, it's a kettle, and if it's on the ground directly in the hot coals being filled with eye of newt, it's a cauldron.

Otherwise, kettles are for making tea, the thing in which you boil the water, rather than the thing in which you steep the tea, which is a tea pot.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:33 AM on April 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Growing up in New England, you’d have the benefit of many school trips to ye olde colonial houses with fireplaces large enough to stand in and huge black kettles on a swing arm. Ask me about settles, trestle tables, Windsor chairs, and wax paper windows.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 11:04 AM on April 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Today I learned that one of my regular, everyday words is mostly considered quaint, old-timey, rural, archaic and possibly a little bit swedish. I am not entirely displeased.
posted by evilmomlady at 12:40 PM on April 28, 2022

Best answer: West coast of the United States, half a century old, familiar with current kitchen terminology but not much of archaisms around it. I have never observed the use of the word "kettle" to refer to an actual cooking pot of any kind. The term has always referred to a spouted container that is used to heat water on a stovetop, or in recent decades, an electric device to do same.

I'm dimly aware that the word "kettle" might have had an archaic additional meaning in the past. It would never have even entered into my mind that such a usage remained even a little current. I would have understood your statement as wordplay or analogy and assumed it playful rather than matter-of-fact.
posted by majick at 10:50 AM on April 29, 2022

Best answer: I was watching King of the Hill, "Phish and Wildlife," where Bobby Hill uses the term kettle to refer to a cooking pot that soup is in. It isn't out of irony or anything, the first I've heard of it.
posted by geoff. at 7:58 PM on May 7, 2022

Best answer: A fine kettle of fish "a complicated and bungled affair"
I had immigrant relatives who would use the word "kettle" to mean the biggest deepest pot, as opposed to a large shallow frying pan. Kettles are used for soups, stews, and especially deep frying, with 3-4 inches of hot oil/fat in the kettle and 3-4 inches of pan above it, so as not to splatter. In colonial days and before, they would be those rounded pots with little legs and handles, to swing over or into a fire.
I didn't grow up with tea drinkers so I've never used the word to refer to something I heat water in. It's a tea pot, whether I brew tea in it or put it on the stove to heat water.
Nowadays (since the 1940's, I would say) we use the words "pot" and "stock pot" to refer to a cooking vessel which is as tall as/taller than it is across, covered, heavy, etc.
And, I can't find the quote online, but in one of her most disdainful moments, MFK Fisher writes about a friend who refused to stay in her house because she did not possess a "Frah Kell".
posted by winesong at 5:50 PM on May 10, 2022

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