Talk of the devil
Coincidence or serendipity generates a feeling that there are powers beyond our ken at work. It is extraordinary how often when we are talking about someone, often in a far from complimentary manner, that person comes into our eye line. This is a cue for red faces, a swift change of subject or the exclamation, Talk of the devil”.
As we have seen before, there has been a tendency over time to abbreviate popular phrases and the originally formation was, talk of the devil and he will appear. As well as abbreviation there has been a subtle change of meaning. The original phrase indicates that the devil will appear when named whereas now we use the phrase to denote surprise when the person spoken of (our devil) has appeared.
The first recorded instance of this phrase in print seems to have been in Giovanni Torriano’s Piazza Universale of 1666 where he states, “The English say, Talk of the Devil and he is presently at your elbow”. The inference is, as well as the mention of the devil will provoke his appearance, is that it was a saying commonly used amongst the English at the time and suggests a much earlier origin. Six years later in Cataplus, a mock poem, we find, “Talk of the devil and see his horns”.
Of course, in the 17th century people were much more careful about invoking God and the devil and a whole host of synonyms were developed to help them convey the meaning without offending sensibilities. We have seen some of these before and phrases like the Horned One or the Prince of Darkness or Old Nick were regularly deployed to indicate the devil. It could be that the belief at the time was that an overt reference would cause the devil to appear. In Matthew Prior’s Hans Carvel of 1701 we find, “forthwith the devil did appear/ for blame him, and he is always near”.
Not unsurprisingly, the church did their best to dissuade their flock from openly referring to the devil or the occult. To do so was considered , at the very least, to be running the risk of suffering some form of ill fortune and so was best avoided. This view is amply demonstrated by the Dean of Westminster, Richard Chevenix Tench, who wrote, “talk of the devil and he is bound to appear contains a very needful warning against curiosity and evil”.
But at some point in the 19th century, probably as people became less superstitious, there was a greater willingness to reference the devil directly. But the formulation of the phrase changed as did the meaning. When we use it today, we don’t necessarily mean that the person we were speaking of is the devil incarnate. Rather it is a light-hearted reference and is an interesting example, to be sure, of how the meanings of phrases change over time.
Beyond our ken
I have just used this phrase – it means that something is beyond the scope of our knowledge or understanding. Ken is used in Scottish and Northern English dialect as an alternative to the verb to know or the noun, knowledge, as in do you ken John Peel? It owes its origin to the Old English verb cennan, to tell or make known, which in turn shares a common root with the Dutch and German kennen, know or be acquainted with. Its use as a verb dates back to Middle English whereas its adoption as a noun is a later development, dating from around the mid 16th century.
Beyond our Ken was also a popular radio programme starring Kenneth Horne. More on him anon.