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What's the meaning of "I know you are but what am I?"?

The Wiktionary page gives a definition that kind of confused me:

Assertion that an insult made by the party to whom the phrase is directed is actually true of that party, and not of the person using the phrase.

If I follow the definition correctly, this phrase means "The accusations that I am making are absolutely true about you and not true about me".

I stumbled upon this phrase in todays' ABCNEWS article on Yahoo! that reports on how Russian President Putin responded to Biden's calling him a killer.

Putin used a phrase that is common among children in Russia:

Кто так обзывается, сам так называется

which literally means "The one who calls me that thing is, in fact, that very thing"

And the meaning is "You are accusing me of something, but aren't you yourself doing that?"

Right after saying that phrase, Putin explained: "When we start passing judgments on any nation on earth, we must keep in mind that we are looking in the mirror as in any nation we can find reflection of ourselves"

So, if my understanding of the definition given in Wiktionary is correct, then it looks like Putin's phrase was mistranslated in the article.

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  • The differences between the English and the Russian saying are inconsequential. In the Russian phrase, the innocence of the speaker is assumed (it seems). Granted that you shouldn't trust most journalists to cross the street unaided, but in this case, I don't see any real difference in meaning. Commented Apr 1, 2021 at 20:37
  • @FeliniusRex - So, is there a difference or not? Is the innocence of the speaker also assumed in the English phrase? If not, then it is very consequential because Putin in the Russian phrase did not agree that he was a killer, but the article presented it as if he did.
    – brilliant
    Commented Apr 1, 2021 at 20:58
  • The innocence of the speaker is stated directly in the English phrase. "...but what am I?" The Russian phrase, "The one who calls me that thing is, in fact, that very thing," assumes that the speaker is innocent. I don't see any other way to understand this. I do not see any differences in meaning between the two statements. Commented Apr 1, 2021 at 21:21
  • @FeliniusRex - I see. Thank you.
    – brilliant
    Commented Apr 2, 2021 at 3:59
  • This is what kids say to one another when insulted.
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 19:16

2 Answers 2

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This is a childish response to being called a rude name and was very common in the school playground when I was a kid.

It goes something like this:

Child A: "Idiot!"
Child B: "I know you are, but what am I?"

The idea is that you deflect the pejorative back upon the person saying it. It was often repeated over and over until the person trying to be insulting got frustrated and gave up.

I can only comment on the English, not the Russian equivalent you mention, but adults may knowingly reappropriate this childish retort either for humour, or perhaps to imply that the name-calling of someone else is childish behaviour to begin with.

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  • Very informative. Thank you!
    – brilliant
    Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 20:31
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Hmmmm…. Instead of “I know you are but what am I, I believe Putin’s use of his childhood phrase is more akin to “it takes one to know one.” Putin is not declaring what Biden said is false, the ‘but what am I’is not present. Very different Meaning… the person saying those things can say those things about me, because they too are one of those things. Which follows more logically with the idea that a country must hold up a mirror when reflecting on or speaking about another country’s deeds.

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    Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 19:05

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