Friday, 3 October 2014

Devil - A Slanderous Etymology


[Old English dēofol (related to Dutch duivel and German Teufel),
via late Latin from Greek diabolos 'accuser, slanderer' (used in the Septuagint to translate Hebrew śāṭān 'Satan'),
from diaballein 'to slander', from dia 'across' + ballein 'to throw'.]

1 (usually The Devil) (in Christian and Jewish belief) The supreme spirit of evil; Satan. OE

1.1 An evil spirit; a demon. OE

1.2 A very wicked or cruel person. E17

1.3 (the devil) Fighting spirit; wildness. L18

1.4 (the devil) A thing that is very difficult or awkward to deal with.

2 With adjective. Informal. A person with specific characteristics. E17

3 (the devil) Expressing surprise or annoyance in various questions or exclamations.

4 An instrument or machine fitted with sharp teeth or spikes,
used for tearing or other destructive work. M19

5 Informal. Dated. A junior assistant of a barrister or other professional. See printer's devil. L17

In this post, Lexicolatry has strayed somewhat from its usual format, in that the definition of devil has been taken from Oxford Dictionaries rather than my hard copy of The Shorter OED. Why? Because, quite frankly, the definition given by my OED was a devil of a definition to type, which is just one example of how the English language has appropriated the title of 'the supreme spirit of evil'.

Unsurprisingly, devil is used in a number of expressions to say that something is particularly bad or troublesome. For example, to play the devil with means 'to cause severe damage to', and if you ever find yourself between the Devil and the deep blue sea, then you really are in a bit of a pickle (or, to use the more academic definition, forced to choose one of two unwelcome possibilities). And the end result? Well, there'll be the devil to pay and the devil to do.

However, sometimes we relegate the supreme agent of evil to something considerably less malevolent. For example, a little devil is likely nothing more ominous than a naughty child, and depending on where and when you're from could also be called a devilet or a devilkin (aww ... bless!). To play devil's advocate might even be a positive move, as one deliberately takes a contentious or opposing view in order to provoke debate or even test the strength of one's own position. But it's back to pure nastiness for my favourite devilry, with the old Irish imprecation"May the cat eat you, and the Devil eat the cat." Ouch.

And, of course, the Devil is often used to sell stuff
Do please bedevil us with your most forked comments in the box below.


  1. Would it not be pronounced "divil" in the Irish expression?

    1. Yes, particularly in a bad, Cruisesque impersonation of an Irish accent.

  2. Replies
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