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The Devil, You Say!

March 6, 2011

Fear me

    “Devil” is surely one of the most overused and underappreciated words in the English language. 

    Consider the gamut of conflicting venues in which devil makes its appearance: nature, communication, domestic affairs and, of course, religion. Devil crosses cultural canyons, secular and cloistered worlds, century after century.

Long after words like “telephone” and “faggot” disappear from the lexicon, the devil will certainly linger, to bedevil one generation after another.

    Evil or Misunderstood?

The enduring iconic devil persona imbues human storytelling. I speak of the stalwart devil of biblical and oral traditions — that blame-worthy character from the Dark Side, egging on weak humans to cave in to sin and temptation.

The Devil, you say!

This classic hell-dweller devil is the fall guy for all peril and toil, whether curdled milk in the kitchen or bloody battles lost.
Black, hot, stinky and sneaky, this devil archetype is our most familiar.

Devils transform over time, in tandem with the culture. These days, it’s rare to find the scary, goat-horned, blood-thirsty monster of a devil that was once so popular.

See the Jersey Devil of yore, a boogey-man creature, with satanic features, transformed into a cute little mascot for the NHL team. Stylized, impish, ubiquitously grinning (and suspiciously cherubic) devils are used to sell everything from beer and chocolates to vacuum cleaners and toys.


    Caught In the Act? Blame Satan!

The devil has long been used to explain many simple human failings. The devil is a handy device  for men who wish to be seen as victims rather than criminals, or to slyly belittle someone.

For example, a man who lusts after a woman may by custom blame the woman herself for his socially unacceptable actions. If a man obsesses over a woman, it’s because she has possessed him. She has him bedeviled. She will be the devil of him. She’s the devil in a blue dress. Maybe it’s Prada.

Raising the spectre of Satan justifies acts of aggression, control and violence, especially towards those smaller and weaker:


  • Beat the devil out of him – using violence to drive the mischief out of a child
  • Devil child – a particularly rascally youngster
  • Has the devil in him/Gone to the devil – one has taken a bad path or fallen to depravity
  • She-devil – an especially bitchy or bossy woman. Interestingly, there is no “He-Devil” in the parlance
  • The devil finds work for idle hands/An idle mind is the devil’s playground – keep youngsters busy at all times, lest they get up to mischief


    Satanic or Self-Actualizing?

Besides the satanic, flesh-and-blood, soul-craving legendary beast, “devil” pops up all around us in folk sayings and popular culture. These present an indirect devil in disguise, boasting a mere hint of beastliness.

Dialectically, the devil may be innocent, cheeky, even obsequious.

Some examples:

Red Devil

  • Devil-may-care – a carefree attitude
  • Devil take the hindmost – it’s every man for himself in the rush toward a goal
  • The Devil made me do it – a facile admission of guilt
  • What the devil? – WTF in polite society
  • Speak of the devil – announcing the unexpected arrival of a person being discussed
  • Give the devil his due – even a ne’er-do-well has some redeeming value
  • To the devil with you – a curse
  • Between the devil and the deep blue sea – forced to choose between two undesirable things
  • Devil’s Haircut – So scared or confounded that your hair stands straight up
  • Devil’s Disciples – Followers of an unsavory dude
  • Devil’s Rejects – Folks too evil and incompetent even for Satan’s liking
  • Pact with the Devil – literally, to barter one’s soul for temporal gain; customarily, a jealous suggestion that another’s gifts are unnatural

Shame the devil


    Let’s Make a Deal

Traditions around the possibility of making pacts with the devil gives rise to several folk idioms. “The devil takes care of his own,” for instance, suggests that a person with skill or wealth has come by them dishonestly, perhaps even by dealing with the devil.

Deal-with-the-devil myths are associated with musicians such as violinist Paganini and blues legend Robert Johnson.

Devil’s Bridge refers to one of many ancient European bridges that rely on technology that was supposedly ahead by centuries.

Let's make a deal


    Eternally Yours, Satan

We find devils in specific times and places:

  • Race with the devil/Like the devil – recklessly fast or heedless
  • Devil’s Hour – Exactly 3 a.m.; the best time to see witches, demons, etc.
  • Devil’s Night – In some regions, the night before Halloween is given over to teenagers’ mischief
  • Before the devil knows your dead –  Irish well-wishes to a rogue. (Fully: May you be in Heaven half an hour before the Devil knows you’re dead)
  • Devil’s strip/footstep – Barren or abandoned space between private and public property, for example between a sidewalk and a street
  • Devil’s lane – Narrow space between parallel fences
  • Dance with the Devil – An undertaking that is certain to attract the wrong kind of attention, or to tempt fate

      The Devil’s Work

    There’s a devil for every workplace, it seems.

    Wars produce devils galore,  such as the bevy of Devil’s Brigades and Devil Dogs of the air and infantry. 

    Black Devils’ Brigade is the nickname of the 1st Special Service Force, a joint American-Canadian unit organized during the Second World War. Canadian Indian Tommy Prince fought with the brigade.

    “Devil” once referred to an apprentice in many professions, including the law, which, together with printing, has a complicated relationship with the devil.

    Devil’s advocate refers to someone who skillfully takes a side in an argument, whether they believe that position or not.

    Book printing was considered the work of the devil when moving type first came on the scene, although one of the technology’s first uses was to mass-produce copies of the King James Bible.

    A printer’s devil is an apprentice to the printer, the one responsible for carrying spent type to the “hellbox,” to be melted down and reused.

    The Developer’s Image Library – or DevIL – is a cross-platform image library; devils are a powerful group of monsters in Dungeons and Dragons; devils are common characters in Japanese video games.

    Both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky wrote novels called The Devil or The Devils. Tolstoy’s focuses on a sense of being possessed, to explain continual lusting; the Dostoevsky piece considers the relationship between “possessed” and “possession.”


      Details, Details

    Business dealings are rife with devilish catch phrases:

  • The Devil lives in the details – Nitty-gritty elements will foil even the best plans if ignored
  • Shake hands/Deal with the devil – Strike a bargain with an enemy, for the greater good
  • The devil to pay – The cost will be excessive in the end
  • The devil’s own/devil of a time – Something was a bitch to accomplish: “It was the devil’s own rush to get here”
  • In league with the devil – Customary enemies have joined forces for no good
  • Keep the devil down in the hole – To acknowledge one’s susceptibility to do evil things, and struggle to keep those tendencies in check

      Nature of the Beast

    Naturalists seem fond of devil in their taxonomy. Besides a slough of geographic features called Devil’s peaks, bowls and elbows:

    • Dust devil – a whirlwind
    • Devil’s coach horse beetle – a long, black predatory beetle
    • Tasmanian Devil – misunderstood marsupial
    • Devil ray – manta ray
    • Devil’s bit/claw/club/paintbrush – plants and flowers
    • Red Devil – A flesh-eating squid. Also the street name for a sedative that comes in a red capsule. And the nickname for several air force squadrons, parachute teams, military brigades, planes, trains and railcars. Caulking and punk bands. And sports teams. Basically, this is an all-purpose macho catch phrase.

    Burning devil


      Let’s Say It’s Evil

    Seemingly supernatural phenomena may be associated with the devil:

    • Devil’s Footprints – a name given to supposedly mysterious hoof-like marks on the ground
    • Devil’s Fingerprints – scorch marks said to have been left by a devil-dog or similar legendary creature
    • Devil’s Handkerchief – Essential magicians’ prop that allows objects to disappear
    • After the Devil beats his wife – folk expression to explain rainshowers during sunshine

        Is It Hot In Here?

      On the domestic front we find devils as well:

    • Sleep with the Devil, wake up in hell – your choices have consequences
    • Shame the Devil – to speak the truth
    • Better the devil you know (than the devil you don’t) – a situation may be bad, but at least it’s familiar
    • Devil’s food cake – rich, dark chocolate cake
    • Deviled eggs/ham – Made with spicy ingredients, such as mustard, pepper, paprika
    • Devil sticks – juggling sticks
    • Devil’s darning needle – a darner
    • A devil of a – something difficult to handle or solve: “It was a devil of a cheesecake recipe”
    • Play the devil with – to confound, through disruption or mischief
    • Poor devil – one to be pitied
    • Lucky devil – one to be envied


    Smile for Daddy


    With his name taken in vain, meanings lost to time, and with no shame to speak of, perhaps it’s time we show some sympathy for the devil
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