Archived Story

Every devilish saying has story

Published 10:22am Thursday, January 2, 2014 Updated 12:23pm Thursday, January 2, 2014

There are a lot of English phrases that contain references to the Devil. One of my all-time favorites is to be “caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.” As it turns out, one very likely origin of that particular phrase comes from the nautical world, back when ships were constructed out of wood.

At that time, the “devil” was the seam between the deck planking itself and the topmost plank of the ship’s side. That seam constantly needed caulking because of the shifting caused by the wooden ship flexing to heavy seas. The heavier the seas were, the more often caulking was needed. Thus the sailor found himself hanging over the side of the ship during those heavy seas, trying to keep the ship afloat while hammering caulking into the seam and trying not to be washed overboard.

“Oh, go to the Devil.” That phrase is self-explanatory, and I think I remember my mother using it, or some variation of it, when we kids were being, well, kids. Even though she often sputtered and mumbled about our behavior, she couldn’t conceal the tiny bit of her that wished she were our age and misbehaving with us. No doubt we took huge advantage of her inability to conceal that information, and we knew the Devil wasn’t going to get us, uh uh. Most of childhood is a balance between the devil and the deep blue sea, a battle usually lost.

Even grownups never lose the working relationship between the two.

“The Devil take the hindmost.” The first thing that comes here is the phrase “first come, first served.” Again, growing up on the farm comes to mind, and although we always had enough to eat, as growing farm boys we were constantly starving to death, and we were to my best recollection never late when food was involved. I don’t think we were ever late. Therefore, there never was a “hindmost,” so this phrase doesn’t apply.

It did seem to apply to farming in general some years back when soybean prices kept going up, up, and then up some more to the point where it seemed there was always a better price, should one just wait a few more days to sell. The Devil got some of the hindmost farmers, because some of them waited just a little too long to sell. They indeed knew the meaning of this. Dad always said the plight of the farmer was to buy too late, sell too soon, or buy too soon, sell too late. For this particular bit of knowledge, the phrase “the Devil is in the details” quite aptly applies, and needs no further explanation.

But my all-time favorite saying came from Uncle Hugh. He’s long gone now, but he was the musician in the family who got all of us cousins involved in guitars, pianos, and rock and roll. (I’m a little uncertain he knew where all this was going at the time, but it was music, and it spread through my generation of cousins like a virus.)

Uncle Hugh often said that even though people back during The Depression had very little money, they always had some for entertainment like dancing and drinking. And because he could play about anything in the band, that helped him bring in that little extra cash that made a big difference to his family’s welfare.

“The Devil dances in empty pockets,” I often heard him say about The Depression. The people who came to these dances were just ordinary folks looking for some enjoyment during a time of dust, unemployment, and general hard times. I could always tell that he was to the end grateful that he and his band could take their minds off their troubles for a little while.

Once in a while, though, his eyes twinkled and he always tried to hide a small smile when he said: “Things got a bit out of hand.” Then he would say, “You know? The Devil always dances in empty pockets.” We were left to imagine what he meant.

I’m still not sure. I guess the Devil really is in the details, and I don’t know them. But after years of playing in bar bands, I can just about guess.


Alan Linda is a New York Mills resident.

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