ACTUAL LEXICON DEVIL
Late comedian/vaguely abusive substitute teacher to America George Carlin used to have a long routine just about the word “shit.”
This was part of his “Filthy Words” act, from the 1973 album Occupation: Foole; it’s usually overshadowed by the similar and more famous “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” from the previous year and so doesn’t get much play, but I like “Filthy Words” better.
“Shit” is a taboo word, but Carlin points out we have a bottomless reservoir of uses for it, many of which don’t even make sense:
“Get that shit out of here; I don’t want to see that shit anymore; cut that shit, buddy; I’ve had that shit up to here; I think you’re full of shit myself; he don’t know shit from Shinola–always wondered how the Shinola people feel about that. […] Hot shit, holy shit, tough shit, eat shit; shit-eating grin–uh, whoever thought of that was ill. ‘He had a shit-eating grin’–he had a what?!” etc. This goes on for a full three minutes.
The joke–other than that it’s funny to hear the word “shit” so many times consecutively–is that obviously people are saying this supposedly unacceptable word constantly, or else we wouldn’t have hundreds of species of idiom with it.
Similarly, people cannot seem to keep the devil out of their mouths–just look how often he comes up in English alone.
“The devil’s in the details”: Random House editor Gregory Titelman writes that the original expression was “god is in the details,” but this version edged it out in the ’60s, making this Satan’s biggest cultural victory of the decade not unfortunately tied to Roman Polanski.
“A devil of a time”: This one dates to at least the 18th century and is the root of the similar, “Hell of a time,” which in turn fertilized expressions like “Hell of a guy,” which is actually complimentary, as it arguably should have been all along.
“Speak of the devil”: Italian writer Giovanni Torriano first recorded this one in, yes, 1666 (hold for applause), writing in his Piazza Universale, “The English say, Talk of the Devil, and he’s presently at your elbow.” Presumably this is to discourage you from talking about the devil…which is defeated by the popularity of the proverb.
“Idle hands are the devil’s playthings”: People assume this one comes from the Bible, because as Samuel L Jackson’s career illustrates you can make people believe almost anything is in the Bible. It probably actually comes from the Canterbury Tales, which your preacher almost certainly does not want you reading instead.
“Better the devil you know”: Titelman again testifies that, like me, this one is of Irish extraction, first recorded by the incredibly named Robert Taverner for his 1539 Proverbs or Adages by Desiderius Erasmus Gathered out of the Chiliades and Englished, “Englished” incidentally also being an unfortunate word for what would happen to half the world in the centuries after Taverner closed up.
“Deviled”: As we told MEL last year, this one first manifested in a 1786 cookbook, instructing chefs to “season a devil.” Well I do always try.
“Devil may care”: American revolutionary poet Philip Morin Freneau wrote in one of his 1775 verses, “‘Tis certain he went, but certainly where I cannot inform, and the devil may care.” The fact that Freneau later died by recklessly wandering into a snowstorm and freezing to death might have some bearing here.
“Devil’s advocate”: This one comes from the Latin, “advocatus diaboli,” which of course means, “To give grounds for murder during previously casual conversation.”
…all right, not really. But the Latin part is true.
“Between the devil and the deep blue sea”: Both of those sound pretty refreshing me, so I don’t know what everybody’s on about. This one appeared in 17th century Scottish war hero Robert Monro’s His Expedition With the Worthy Scots Regiment Called Mac-Keyes, and I swear I’m not making up any of these titles.
“Full of the devil”: Oh you are really not going to like this: It probably comes from Martin Luther’s 1543 tract–and here I pause to avoid giving the bad news for even a second or two longer–The Jews & Their Lies, which was also the theme of Steve Bannon’s wedding reception.
“The devil can cite scripture”: As already noted, he’d be about the only one. This one is first recorded in The Merchant of Venice, which, yes, is another antisemitic rave, how good/horrible of you to notice.
“Give the devil his due”: And this one is out of Henry IV, Part 1, and gratefully is not about anyone Jewish but instead just about a lazy, drunken idiot. Since I’ve already just taken a shot at Steve Bannon I’ll move on.
“Tell the truth and shame the devil”: Anglican Bishop Hugh Latimer’s 1555 book 27 Sermons calls this a “common expression,” although since I refuse to believe anyone can sit through 27 sermons by Latimer he might have written any old shit in here just to see if we’re really paying attention, which I wasn’t.
“Needs must when the devil drives”: This one sounds like gibberish until you go back to its 1420 origin in John Lydgate’s Assembly of Gods: “He must needs go that the devil drives,” which incidentally is exactly why I put down Lydgate’s book.
“Devil incarnate”: If you guessed this was another Shakespeare one, well, you’d be wrong, but you’d have a lot of company. It probably first came up in the 1559 poem collection Mirror For Magistrates, which is just as depressing as Titus Andronicus but doesn’t have nearly as much cannibalism, which is why this is the first time you’ve ever heard of it.
“He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon”: I get the feeling this one doesn’t come up in conversation much anymore; the short spoon industry is perhaps to blame. Chaucer again gets the credit for this one in his Squire’s Tale:
“Therfore bihoveth hire a ful long spoon That shal ete with a feend,’ thus herde I seye.”
…well, in context it’s quite a burn. But maybe you had to be there.