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The meaning and origin of the expression: The devil to pay

The devil to pay

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'The devil to pay'?

'The devil to pay' means serious trouble because of a particular circumstance or obligation.

What's the origin of the phrase 'The devil to pay'?

People seem to love ascribing nautical origins to phrases. Here's a good case in point. The 'devil' is the seam between the planking and the hull of a wooden ship. Admiral William Henry Smyth defined the term in The Sailor's Word-Book: an alphabetical digest of nautical terms, 1867:

Devil - The seam which margins the waterways on a ship's hull.

'Paying' is the sailor's name for caulking or plugging the seam between planking with rope and tar etc. 'Paying the devil' must have been a commonplace activity for shipbuilders and sailors at sea. This meaning of 'paying' is recorded as early as 1610, in S. Jourdain's Discovery of Barmudas:

Some wax we found cast up by the Sea... served the turne to pay the seames of the pinnis Sir George Sommers built, for which hee had neither pitch nor tarre.

Many sources give the full expression used by seafarers as "there’s the devil to pay and only half a bucket of pitch", or "there’s the devil to pay and no pitch hot". Nautical origin; case closed? Well, no.

The devil to payThe phrase doesn't originate from the name of the ship's seam, as is sometimes supposed. It is the name 'devil' in this context which comes from the phrase 'the Devil to pay', rather than the other way about.

The other meaning of paying the Devil alludes to Faustian pacts in which hapless individuals pay for their wishes or misdeeds by forfeiting their soul. This allusion, and the everyday usage meaning 'I am in trouble now, I will have to pay for this later', date from the 18th century; for example, Thomas Brown's Letters From the Dead to the Living, 1707:

Don't you know damnation pays every man's scores... 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.

This quotation pre-dates the earliest recorded usage of 'devil' to mean the seam of a ship (Smyth's The Sailor's Word-Book: an alphabetical digest of nautical terms, 1867) by more than a century. Given the known nautical meaning of 'paying' a seam and the well-established phrase 'the Devil to pay', sailors probably adopted the phrase in reference to the unpleasant task of seam caulking.

George Lemon put forward his understanding of how the phrase was coined in English Etymology, 1783. Lemon explains that, when sailors were ready to start caulking seams before the tar was melted, they used the phrase 'here's the Devil to pay and no pitch hot'. As Lemon put it:

"Here's the black gentleman come to pitch the vessel's sides and you have not so much as made the pitch kettle hot enough to employ him."

Whether we accept Lemon's version or prefer the 'pact with the Devil' derivation, it is clear that the devil in the phrase was originally a reference to Satan, not the seam of a ship.

See also: Between the Devil and the deep blue sea.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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