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What the Deuce,
Or, Etymological Devilry

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By Anatoly Liberman

The Devil is uppermost in people’s thoughts, and his names are many. One of them is Old Nick. Its origin is obscure. The word nicker “water sprite,” explained as an old participle “(a) washed one,” is unrelated to it. Then there is nickel. The term was easy to coin, but copper could not be obtained from the nickel ore, and Axel F. von Cronstedt, a Swedish mineralogist despite von before Cronstedt, called the copper-colored metal copper nickel (German Kupfernickel), later shortened to nickel, after the name of a perfidious mountain demon (wolfram and especially cobalt have a similar history). Nickel was a bogyman or a dwarf, so that von Cronstedt hit on a term of abuse while thinking what to call the deceptive-looking ore. It is less clear why the creature was called Nickel. Later, figures resembling Nickel, disguised and frightening, were used on the eve of St. Nicholas’s day, which led to the confusion of Nickel and Nicholas; hence probably Old Nick.

The connection of the Devil with the name Robert, which has left a trace in the human imagination and art (Meyerbeer’s opera Robert le Diable enjoyed great popularity in his day), is even more puzzling. Robert is, naturally, Rob, and since initial r- often alternates with h-, we have hob “sprite,” as an independent word and as the first element in hobgoblin and, by devious ways, if my etymology is correct, in hobbledehoy. Robin Goodfellow is another fiend. Good in his name owes its existence to taboo: propitiate an enemy, appease him, call him good, and he may leave you in peace. All kinds of flibbertigibbets and Rumpelstilzchens are evil but gullible. It is not fortuitous that Robin Hood, a folklore figure without a historical prototype, though not exactly a forest demon, and Robin Goodfellow are namesakes. We again have the big question unanswered: Why Robin/Robert? Proper names have given rise to hundreds of familiar words, and we can seldom explain the motivation behind the choice. Why john “lavatory,” jenny “skeleton key,” sloppy joe, and slippery jack (the latter is a tasty mushroom)? What did Richard do that dick has acquired an opprobrious meaning? By the way, Dick did not escape the snares of the Devil either. Along with Robert, Richard was among his names. The pet forms of Richard are, among others, Rick and Dick. From Dick we have Dickon, Dicken, and Dickens (-s is a typical suffix lending words a familiar flavor). Dickens is “devil,” but in this case we witness an ultimate triumph of human genius over the forces of evil. Charles Dickens has made the wiles of his “prototype” perfectly harmless. (The existence of such family names, though disturbing, is commonplace: compare German Teufel “devil” and Waldteufel “forest devil”; Emil Waldteufel, 1837-1915, was a popular composer of waltzes). Thus, we have a family consisting of Nick, Dick, and Hob. Old Harry, or Lord Harry, is also worthy of mention.

The supernatural creatures inhabiting mountains, forests, rivers, and so forth could strike awe in people when they made a lot of noise. The names of most giants known from Scandinavian oral tradition mean “screamer” and “howler.” Drolen, one of the Norwegian names of the Devil, is probably akin to troll, a sound-imitative word, like so many others beginning with dr- and tr-. The first part of Rumpelstilzchen is related to Engl. rumble, even though that mischievous imp neither rumbled nor thundered. But this should not cause surprise: people tend to forget the original meaning of words, and this is why we need etymological dictionaries. The -stilzchen element is a cognate of Engl. stilt (-chen is a diminutive suffix, as in Gretchen), so that the whole means something like “little rumble-wooden-leg.” Later, the name, in disregard of its inner form, was applied to a demon who hunted human babies.

The spirits of nature give mighty blows to human beings. Their pugnacity may supply a clue to the word deuce. What the deuce is a synonym of what the dickens. A homonym of deuce “devil” is deuce “two at dice or cards.” Deuce “two” goes back to Old French deus (Modern French deux), from Latin duos, the accusative of duo. Deuce “devil” is of Northern German origin, in which wat de duus..! has been recorded (in High German the phrase is was der Daus..!). English dictionaries suggest that deuce “devil” and deuce “two” are the same word. Allegedly, wat de duus was the exclamation by dicers on making the lowest throw (two), hardly a convincing etymology. There must have been a word duus “devil.” In the August gleanings, I discussed a possible origin of bulldoze(r) and traced, however tentatively, -doze to a verb meaning “strike” (Northern German dusen “beat, strike,” etc.), one of whose congeners is Engl. douse ~ dowse “strike (sail); immerse in water.” There may be a tie between duus and those verbs. Or perhaps duus is related to the words denoting stultification and weakness, such as Engl. dizzy and doze and Dutch dwaas “foolish.” This conjecture presupposes an earlier form *dwuus (there is a convention of putting an asterisk before hypothetical forms). Sometimes we discover only the root of the name we investigate. Such is rag(g)-, known in Swedish, Lithuanian, English (the first element of ragamuffin; its second element, -muff-in, also means “devil,” from the French word for “ugly”), and possibly Italian, if ragazzo “boy” formerly meant “imp” (this ragg- is not related to rag “a piece of cloth”) It would be strange if devils revealed their secrets without a good fight. They guard their names (remember Rumpelstilzchen?), lead people astray (remember Puck?), and parade as bogymen, boggarts and bugs. They also hide behind homonyms, but, although sometimes invisible, they are not invincible.


Anatoly_liberman
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. [...] the 2000 version of Henry James’ The Golden Bowl, I heard the once-common phrase “The deuce only knows…”  I’m always looking for vintage profanity, and this appealed to me [...]

  2. Kristina

    Devil=duality=separate (diabolein)

  3. John Pretty

    I think the explanation of the derivation of ‘Old Nick’ is, with respect, highly implausible. ‘Old Nick’ is a phrase long in the vernacular imagination. I doubt many ordinary 18th and 18th century English men and women would have even heard of the metal nickel let alone associate it with the devil. I think an ‘evil’ figure that had entered the public imagination is a more likely explanation – perhaps Niccolo Machiavelli (who I have read is a possibility) or perhaps Nicholas Barbon who was a famous figure in his day.

  4. Dot

    And he lay hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the devi…

    Old Nick is the old serpent and may be connected to nickor and old English name for a water serpent, as found in Beowolf.

    Also the Greek NT word for devil is diabolos coming from roots that mean to throw, caste down of thrust through which may give rise to the deuce words.

  5. Kelly Blackie

    In regard to what the deuce,might not “deuce” be related to the latin “deus” god/deity, and therefore be rendered “what the deity?”

  6. nigel raymond

    Tiu is the name of the Anglo-Saxon sky-god.

    Nikkar is an alternative name of Woden, another
    of the Anglo-Saxon pantheon.

    Proponents of the Christian religion regarded such
    deities as enemies.

  7. [...] in her post about the devil’s nicknames. There’s Old Nick, whose origin is obscure. The Oxford University Press blog says it may come nicker, “water sprite.” Grammarphobia says a possible origin is the first name [...]

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