Tag Archives: Letters from the Dead to the Living

What Is The Origin Of (273)?…

The devil to pay

One of the intriguing things about etymological researches is how many who engage in this rather dry but enlightening pursuit seem desperate to find an origin to a phrase which is other than what might be termed the bleedin’ obvious. Take the devil to pay, for instance, which signifies that there will be serious trouble if something happens. Why shouldn’t the devil in the phrase be Satan?

The devil, the personification of evil, has been in popular culture since at least Biblical days and is someone’s whose wiles all God-fearing people should shun, like Christ did after fasting for forty nights and forty days. Our phrase first crops up in a manuscript dating from 1481 in which the anonymous scribe wrote, “it would be better to stay at home/ than to serve here to pay the devil”. There is no question that the devil here who might otherwise be pacified, the original definition of pay and later extending to the idea of pacifying creditors by paying up, is none other than Satan.

It was not until the early 18th century that the phrase cropped up again, for example in Thomas Brown’s Letters from the Dead to the Living, published in 1707; “we knew we should have the Devil to pay one time or other, and now you see like honest men we have pawn’d our Souls for the whole Reckoning”.

The satirist, Jonathan Swift, was fond of the phrase, adding and all as an intensifier to give the phrase additional emphasis. In a letter to Esther Johnson dated September 28, 1711 he wrote, “The earl of Stafford is to go soon to Holland, and let them know what we have been doing and then there will be the devil and all to pay”. On November 17th that year he wrote, “this being queen Elizabeth’s birth-day, we have the Devil and all to do among us” and in 1738, fearing the wrath of his wife, he penned, “I must be with my Wife on Tuesday, or there will be the Devil and all to pay”.  

A variant was to substitute the Devil with the name of his natural habitat. This variant, possibly for the purpose of preserving the metre, was deployed in Joseph Lewis’ The miscellaneous and whimsical lucubrations of Lancelot Poverty-Struck from 1758; “before that either gain’d the Day/ By Heaven! There was Hell to pay”. Another variation was devil to pay and no pitch hot. This was recorded and explained by Alexander Hamilton in his Gentleman’s Progress of 1744 in which the Scot regaled his readers of his travels including a visit to New York. There he met a man whose speech was peppered with proverbs, including “the devil to pay and no pitch hot?” which he helpfully defined as “An interrogatory adage metaphorically derived from the manner of sailors who pay their ship’s bottoms with pitch”.

Francis Grose, in his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue from 1788 helpfully defined the nautical connotations of the verb to pay. “To smear over. To pay the bottom of a ship or boat; to smear it over with pitch”. The nautical duo, William Smyth and Edward Belcher, shed light on the term devil, defining it in their The Sailor’s Word-Book of 1867 as “the seam which margins the water-ways…why only caulkers can tell, who perhaps found it sometimes difficult for their tools”.  

These later usages have led some to draw two conclusions; that the devil refers to a seam on the water-level of a ship and that the devil to pay is an abbreviation of the devil to pay and no pitch hot. I don’t think we need to jump to this conclusion. The devil to pay was already in use and well attested before the nautical version came upon the scene and it is clear that the devil concerned was Satan. The later phrase may simply have a separate origin or, more likely, the devil in it really was Satan and that some clever Dick decided to crowbar a nautical context on to it.

Who knows?