The Devil has a small outing



The Devil has a great many sayings and proverbs taking his name and bad habits into account, these tend to have a long history – as long I guess as bad luck and misfortune have. Her is a very small selection to enjoy.

Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.

The term devil maybe more recent but way back in 194BC  Plautus, a Latin playwright 254-184BC, says

Keep what you have, the known evil is best

Aesop 620-564 BC, in his morality tale of the the Frogs who wanted a King

you must bear the evil that you have lest a greater one befall you

Pettie writer of romances 1548-1589

you had rather keep those whom you know,though with some faults, than take those whom you not know,perchance with more faults.

Even our own bard, Shakespeare 1564-1616, came up with the thought in Hamlet

makes us rather bear those ills we have,Than fly to others that we know not of
For awhile, as the sentiment became snappier, evil and devil ran alongside each other but devil prevailed by the time A.Trollope, novelist 1815-1882, mentions it is an ‘old saying’

Needs must when the devil drives

When one is forced to take action against ones better judgment.  If one knows the saying comes from way back when,it can be found written in 1420, it is understandable why the devil comes into it. This was a time of superstition as well as religion. The ordinary man was well aware of misfortune behind every stone and his powerless-ness in the world. Sometimes there was no choice.

He must nedys go that the duell dryues  written in 1420 became

Needs must go when the devil drives 1  written in   1672 became

Needs must when the devil drives  in the 1800s and now often people forget the malicious intent of the devil and just say
Needs must

Whatever the devil still lurks behind the words:)

Between the devil and the deep blue sea

being caught between two equal difficulties.  This  is not about the devil!

Like many of our sayings this actually comes from our seafaring days, not a superstition or fights with the devil.

Somewhere on board a ship is a plank or seam called a devil, I cannot find out exactly where or what, I am sure any sailors out there could say. The devil was awkwardly and dangerously placed and needed caulking at regular intervals.

It was not the best duty to befall a sailor who would be perched between the ‘devil and the sea‘. How many perished by falling?

Originally it was ‘sea’ then ‘deep sea’ and then changed to ‘deep blue sea’. Were we trying to brighten up the prospect?

And now one, about the devil which originally wasn’t!

Talk of the devil and he will appear;

Said when a person one is talking about suddenly appears.

The origins of this refers to a wolf in an ancient fable who appeared whenever he was mentioned

Back in 200BC  Titus Maccius Platus, (Latin playwright) mentions it. Erasmus in 1536 also mentions it in connection with the wolf.

For some reasons, although Europe, still has the wolf for a similar saying  in English it was changed to the devil.  Maybe through those dark difficult times when superstitions ruled.  However, Europe were also living through those times  and didn’t feel the need, so maybe we just didn’t know that old fable well enough to take it on board.  Also historically we rid the islands of wolves fairly early on compared to Europe.  Whatever the reason we substituted devil for wolf.

One just didn’t talk about the devil or trouble was sure to follow – he could appear anywhere and at any time speaking his name would surely be a call he would answer. You can see how the mind works.

I was brought up on a variant ‘speak of the devil and he will appear’.

Now though one usually just says speak(talk) of the devil – leaving off the last bit and it is usually more humorous than fearful.









To Curry Favour


My sister is forever asking why we say things the way we do. She is asking about our idioms and expressions. Partly because she misheard them(being very deaf) but also because they do not seem to make any sense to her when she examines them word for word.

I have a fondness for the familiar, I do not mind so very much clichés and proverbs. I confess to a liking for idioms and sayings. They serve a purpose, they are familiar and therefore oddly comforting at times. They serve as shorthand, hash tags, to universal life.

They also appeal to me because many of them break the rules of grammar and of sense. Tiny rebels against organized language. They can be nonsensical and – get away with it – what’s not to like?

What is an idiom?As this is a blog about words I give the Oxford Dictionary meaning of the word that pertains to the subject. There are other meanings.

Idiom: a form of expression, grammatical construction, phrase etc peculiar to a person or language: a phrase etc which is understood by speakers of a particular language despite its meaning not being predictable from that of the separate words.

Origin: Idios;  Greek,  idiousthai    make one’s own ( when applied to  a perculiar to self form of language),

In other words Idioms are not to be taken literally. The whole expression has very little to do with the individual words and we who grow up in the language accept this and just use the shape for the meaning until someone says why do we say that? Idioms though are difficult to understand for those coming to the language as newbies.

I am going in the next few months to explore some of our idioms and sayings. Many make no discernible sense, standing almost as a metaphor now, yet they did make sense once and have traveled along the path of changing vocabulary, spelling, mispronunciation and occupations until we end uttering them and knowing what they mean despite it all.

Or do we?

Some have a simple history and some travel more convoluted routes.

To curry favour:

 To seek to favour or ingratiate oneself (with a person) by flattery etc.

To seek to win (goodwill, friends etc) by flattery etc

We know what it means but how does it mean i.?

Nothing to do with Indian dishes. The horse minded amongst us will maybe consider horses, as grooming a horse is often referred to as‘currying’. So not the kitchen but the stable, but still where does the whole expression comes from.

Way back in 1310, what a long time ago! there was a French poem, satirical and popular for hundreds of years, oh if we could all write something with that longevity! The name of this work of art  Roman de Fauvel’.

Fauvel was a centaur. Centaurs were featured in Greek myths as strange hybrid creatures both man and horse.

Centaur: creature with head arms and torso of a man and the body and legs of a horse.
Origin: Greek,   kentauros referring to a people of Thessaly who were expert horsemen.


This Fauvel was cunning and an extremely dangerous beastie. In the satire he was representing hypocrisy and deceit. If you didn’t want the breathe knocked out of you,

you gentled him,
made nice to him
you curried Favual, so he wouldn’t turn nasty.

Mind, if he was deceitful and hypocritical I wouldn’t place any bets on it working out long term:)

Yeah, well, favour?

Mispronunciation, misspelling, mistranslated, mis whatever.

Origin: Old French:  estriller fauvel, to rub down, groom a chestnut horse

Fauvel:   French,   fallow coloured.

So there it is: a mixture of ancient Greek mythology, Old French vocabulary, a satire penned in 1310, a journey across the sea to these islands to be slightly mangled and changed over time to what we have now. What we understand it to mean is correct. Once long ago it also made sense.