It is amazing how often the Devil is invoked in English idioms: he has certainly been given his due. Some phrases must go back to myths. The Devil and his dam reminds us of the ancient stories in which two monsters play havoc with human lives. A famous example is Grendel and his mother (Beowulf), but folklore is full of similar examples. For whatever reason, the female was always stronger and harder to vanquish. The protagonist’s career in The Great Gatsby is summed up in the words: “Poor bastard.” Perhaps a more genteel variant would have been poor devil (of course, lucky devil exists too!). Some collocations are less transparent. For instance, it remains somewhat unclear why an apprentice in a printing establishment, someone on the lowest rung in that hierarchy, is (or was) called the printer’s devil.
With regard to the folklore of the Devil, the thickest folder in my database of idioms is pull devil, pull baker. An article in Notes and Queries 198 (1953) and another on the website World Wide Words have informative essays on this phrase, but I’ll tell my story anyway, because I have some interesting material from American Notes and Queries and The Spectator. I hope that my explanatory and etymological dictionary of select English idioms, which is almost ready, will appear in the foreseeable future, and then my database will become available to all who may care to use it.
So here goes. The phrase is an instigation to two contestants, with the spectators encouraging now one, now the other. Two tales have been cited to explain it. According to one, an evil baker supplied a ship’s crew with bad biscuits. On the voyage back, the ship suddenly stopped, and the sailors saw the culprit fighting with the Devil, who was trying to pull his victim down. But the baker fought so valiantly that the sailors forgot their chagrin and, depending on who was winning, shouted: “Pull, Devil; pull baker.”
Another tale has it that a baker is detected making short weight. The Devil enters and carries off the light bread and ill-gotten gold. The baker pursues the Devil, and the tug of war begins. This is the content of an old play. In both versions, the Devil wins, and both go back to puppet plays. An Elizabethan ballad “The Devil and the Baker” was known, so that the characters in popular performance may be medieval. I have no information on whether the struggle ever formed an episode in the Punch drama. Perhaps some of our readers know more about the subject. The phrase surfaced in print late (no citations antedate 1764 in the OED). In the nineteenth century, the idiom must have still been fairly common as an invitation to a fierce fight. Here is a dialog from John Galsworthy’s 1897 story “Villa Rubein”: “—Give her up, eh? Harz shook his head. –-No? Then it’s ‘pull devil, pull baker’ between us.” Today, few people will understand this exchange without a note. (The phrase baker’s dozen has nothing to do with pull baker. I have some edifying information on it, but not for today.)
Some sayings are enigmatic (no less so than the words about which dictionaries say: “Origin unknown”), because there is a story behind them, and we do not know it. One of them is the Devil overlooks Lincoln. In the past, I have had more than one chance to refer to Thomas Fuller’s famous book The History of the Worthies of England (1662; it is now available online), the first English encyclopedic and biographical dictionary. Fuller mentioned the incomparable height of the cathedral and gave a long comment on the odd saying. The image of the devil that stood many years on the top of the college or over Lincoln Cathedral seems “to have given occasion for that proverb,” which was known at least as early as the middle of the sixteenth century. The reference is to Lincoln College, Oxford. The figure of the Devil was removed in 1731. As Ebenezer C. Brewer (Dictionary of Phrase and Fable) notes, other sayings of the same type exist, for instance, the Devil overlooking Durham.
Above, I mentioned the strange reference to the printer’s devil. Yes, the lowest rank; yes, always on the run, but why devil? Analogous questions turn up elsewhere. The title of this post contains the words the devil to pay. The full phrase is the Devil to pay and no pitch hot, known in books since at least 1500. It means “service expected, and no one is ready to perform it.” Perhaps the devil means “the seam between the covering board and the deck planking,” but no authority of such a suggestion is given. However, one immediately recalls the saying between the Devil and the deep sea “exposed to danger on both sides.” The earliest quotation in the OED goes back to 1621 (with dead for deep).
I am quoting from my source: “The expression is made use of by Colonel Munroe in his Expedition with Mackay’s Regiment [pronounce –kay as –ki!], published in London, 1637. In the engagement between the forces of Gustavus Adolphus and the Austrians [during the Thirty Years’ War], the Swedish gunners, for a time, had not given their pieces proper elevation, and their shots came down among Lord Reay’s [pronounced as ray] men, who were in the service of the King of Sweden. Munroe did not like this sort of play, which kept him and his men, as he expressed it, between the devil and the deep sea. So an officer was sent to the batteries with the request that the guns should be raised, but several of Lord Reay’s soldiers were killed before the mistake was rectified. Munroe’s meaning seems to be that he was in a fix, exposed to danger from friends as well as foes—and that there was no means to escape.”
Since the OED has undug the same phrase dated to 1621, Munroe, we conclude, did not coin it. This is a well-known catch: we find an early quotation and are tempted to believe that the author invented a certain expression occurring in it. Countless pithy sayings are attributed to Shakespeare, but we’ll never find out whether he was their creator. Between the Devil and the deep sea…. The alliteration makes our search for its origin especially hard. Similar but not identical expressions exist in many languages. Some of the English synonyms are between a rock and a hard place and between the hammer and the anvil, while in Latin they said inter sacrum et saxum, approximately “between the shrine and the victim.” Some such proverbial sayings go back to the Classical antiquity (compare between Scylla and Charybdis). Others are native and often almost forgotten, like between hawk and buzzard.
For curiosity’s sake, I’ll quote the following: “It has been suggested… that this phrase [the one discussed above] was adopted, if not originated, by the Royalists in allusion to Cromwell, ‘the deep C.’, the relationship of the devil to the deep ‘C.’ being implied in a book or pamphlet of the time entitled A True and Faithful Narrative of Oliver Cromwell’s Compact with the Devil for Seven Years on the day on which he gained the Battle of Worchester…” The famous battle, won by Cromwell, was fought on September 3, 1651. Naturally, the Royalists knew the phrase and only used it punningly for the occasion. (One is tempted to mention Pavarotti’s title “King of the high C’s.)
I have quite a collection of curious notes on the Evil One, but perhaps this will do for today.
Feature image credit: Witches’ Sabbath by Francisco Goya. Collection: Museo del Prado. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.