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Devil to pay, the

Q From Ian: Is it true that the phrase the devil to pay comes from the 18th or early 19th century navy?

A A naval origin is often given, but I don’t think that’s the answer.

The phrase is said to refer to the devil, a seam which was difficult to reach and which needed a lot of tar to caulk, or pay. The latter word is a well-attested usage on board ship, first recorded in the seventeenth century, but devil as a name for a ship’s seam is less well-known, and there’s suspicious disagreement among sources as to which seam is meant. The full expression given in many books is “there’s the devil to pay and only half a bucket of pitch”, or “there’s the devil to pay and no pitch hot”. But there’s no evidence that the expression had a nautical origin, though it was probably taken up on board ship once it had become something of a cliché, based on the existing shipboard meaning of pay. The longer versions are most likely fanciful later additions.

It’s more probable that the phrase was a reference to a Faustian bargain, a pact with Satan, and to the inevitable payment to be made to him in the end. Its earliest appearances at about the beginning of the eighteenth century certainly have no hint of a naval origin or context. Here’s an example written by Jonathan Swift in 1738: “I must be with my Wife on Tuesday, or there will be the Devil and all to pay”.

Page created 24 Apr. 1999

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Last modified: 24 April 1999.