Speak of the Devil!

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One of my favorite sayings is

God is in the details.

It makes me think of patient medieval manuscript illuminators who might spend days on the meticulous execution of one initial letter. Their work was a form of prayer. Every detail deserved the utmost attention because the work was being offered to the glory of God.

Nowadays the expression has morphed into

the Devil is in the details

The necessity of paying close attention to details is still the focus of the saying, but now the admonition warns against ignoring details for fear of law suits or time delays.

between the devil and the deep blue sea – trapped in a difficult situation with no easy way out. (between a rock and a hard place)

there’ll be the devil to pay – there will be severe consequences

devilled eggs – hard-cooked eggs in which the yolks have been flavored with hot spices; devilled – grilled with hot condiments (also spelled deviled)

devil’s food cake – a rich moist, airy layer cake made with cocoa. Probably named to contrast it with angel food cake, which is white and fluffy.

devil-may-care attitude – a wildly reckless attitude that laughs at caution

a devil of a question – a question that has no easy answer, or, perhaps, a question considered impertinent by the person being asked it.

dust devil – sand spout or dust storm

printer’s devil – a printer’s apprentice

devilry, deviltry, devilment – all words referring to devilish behavior, either in the sense of wicked behavior or of roguery.

speak of the devil – nowadays this expression is used when one has been speaking of a person just before the person arrives. Or perhaps one has been speaking of rain just before a downpour. Full-length versions of the proverb: Speak of the devil and he will appear; Speak of the devil and he’ll be at your elbow. The expression originated with the belief that one should not mention the devil’s name for fear of attracting his attention.

Devil’s advocate – from Latin. advocatus diaboli, one whose job it is to urge against the canonization of a candidate for sainthood.

little devil – little rascal; playful use for “clever rogue”

devilish behavior – wicked behavior

Old Nick
Old Scratch
The Tempter
The Lord of Darkness
The Deceiver
The Lord of the Flies

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15 thoughts on “Speak of the Devil!”

  1. Brilliant article! I never knew that “Speak of the devil and he shall appear” has a second line “Speak of the devil and he’ll be at your elbow.”

    Couple more names for the devil: The Fallen Angel, the Morning Star. They’re really just more names for Lucifer though.

    Have you ever looked into demonology? It’s interesting how many devils and demons have been invented and how they end up in popular culture references.

  2. Ummm …

    Can I contribute “a devil of a job”, as a phrase?

    I’ve heard it used by several of my friends, although I don’t know if I could quote you any references.

    I’ve usually heard it used of hard or tricky jobs, and in a similar way to “a job and a half”.

  3. One phrase that is missing is… “The Devil made me do it!” I believe it was comedian Flip Wilson’s character, Geraldine, who touted the phrase. The definition is basically ‘one who doesn’t want to take responsibility for their own actions like they had no choice to do it.’

  4. Interesting article, so many uses for the word “devil”.

    I thought I would comment on the origin of two of the expressions:

    “there’ll be the devil to pay” –In the old days, if you worked on boats and were told to ‘pay the devil’ you were destined for some hard work. The bottom of a wooden boat, the part that curves under, is called ‘the devil’. The word ‘pay’ means to caulk. When paying the devil one has to lay on one’s back under the dry docked ship and stuff rope and cotton saturated in tar into the cracks between the ship’s planking. A very hard and messy job.

    “Between the devil and the deep blue sea” –One punishment in the old sailing days was being “keel hauled”, they would tie a line in a circle around the circumference of the ship, then they would attach the unfortunate sailor to this line, throw him overboard and pull the line on the other side until the sailor was dragged under the ship and finally come out the opposite side of the ship. If he held his breath long enough he would live. On his journey around the ship, while holding his breath, he would be “caught between the devil and the deep blue sea”.

    Thanks again for a great newsletter.


  5. The devil you say! Could it be … Satan! (Shout out to Dana Carvey’s the “Church Lady”).

  6. Another name for the devil is “Old Harry”.
    If you’ve never heard the bbc radio series “Old Harry’s Game” it’s highly recommended.

  7. You forgot the most obvious – Satan!
    By the way, Beelzebub originally referred to a separate demon as well as Azazel and Belial. But today, as far as I know, they all are used as alternative names for Devil.
    As for the etymology, most of these names come from Hebrew and are used even today in the spoken language.

  8. One punishment in the old sailing days was being “keel hauled”, they would tie a line in a circle around the circumference of the ship, then they would attach the unfortunate sailor to this line, throw him overboard and pull the line on the other side until the sailor was dragged under the ship and finally come out the opposite side of the ship. If he held his breath long enough he would live.

    The hull of the ship would have been covered in barnacles. The keel-haulee would be flayed. Seems very unlikely anyone could survive that, sans modern medicine (antibiotics, in particular), even if he could hold his breath.

  9. Maeve, I might suggest double-checking the “printer’s devil” expression. It was my understanding that the term referred to the compartmentalized wooden tray that holds all the little metal letter stamps used in a printing press. If that tray got tipped over and the letters spilled the printer would need hours and hours reorganizing the tray (having a devil of a time in the process). This was told to me when my grade-school class trip visited a recreated colonial American village; the man working the old-time printing press told us that was where the term “printer’s devil” came from.

  10. Yaniv is correct. In my studies on occultism, black witchcraft, demonology, and related fields, Lucifer is the official name of the primary (boss) demon in Hell. Beelzebub, Astaroth, Asmodeus, Astarte, Belial, Leviathan, and many, many others are separate and individual spirit beings. Of course, for many people the terms are largely interchangeable, but the note should be made if you’re writing involves these beings — you can bet there will be someone out there who will call you on the carpet if your usage is incorrect.

  11. Maeve, other terms to include would be “diabolical” (not actual “devil” but closely related; “daredevil”; “(to) bedevil someone”; “devil’s quotes” (this may be largely regional — it refers to the Christian idea that even the Devil may quote scripture for his own ends. It means information that has been twisted or spun to present a specific point of view in order to advance the speaker’s agenda.); the various plants that have names including devil-related terms; and “whistling up the devil,” which refers to the nervous whistling a person may do to ward off fear (like when walking past a cemetary at night, for example).

  12. For all the complications..err
    Devil in the details or what not..
    Where is the simple adage..if that’s correct term
    What The Devil !
    I showed up once at a family gathering
    once and my older brother said
    Speak of The Devil about me..not in a bad way..
    What the Devil though!

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