- skip - Brewer’s

Devil to Pay and no Pitch Hot (The)


The “devil” is a seam between the garboard-strake and the keel, and to “pay” is to cover with pitch. In former times, when vessels were often careened for repairs, it was difficult to calk and pay this seam before the tide turned. Hence the locution, the ship is careened, the devil is exposed, but there is no pitch hot ready, and the tide will turn before the work can be done. (French, payer, from paix, poʹix, pitch.)

The Devil to Pay is the name of a farce by Jobson and Nelly.

Here’s the very devil to pay. Is used in quite another sense, meaning: Here’s a pretty kettle of fish. Iʹm in a pretty mess; this is confusion worse confounded.

Proverbial Phrases.

Cheating the devil. Mincing an oath; doing evil for gain, and giving part of the profits to the Church, etc. It is by no means unusual in monkish traditions. Thus the “Devil’s Bridge” is a single arch over a cataract. It is said that his Satanic Majesty had knocked down several bridges, but promised the abbot, Giraldus of Einsiedel, to let this one stand, provided the abbot would consign to him the first living thing that crossed it. When the bridge was finished, the abbot threw across it a loaf of bread, which a hungry dog ran after, and “the rocks re-echoed with peals of laughter to see the Devil thus defeated.” (Longfellow: Golden Legend, v.)

⁂ The bridge referred to by Longfellow is that over the Fall of the Reuss, in the canton of the Uri, Switzerland.

Rabelais says that a farmer once bargained with the Devil for each to have on alternate years what grew under and over the soil. The canny farmer sowed carrots and turnips when it was his turn to have the under-soil share, and wheat and barley the year following. (Pantagruel, book iv. chap. xlvi.)

Give the devil his due. Give even a bad man or one hated like the devil the credit he deserves.

Gone to the devil. To ruin. The Devil and St. Dunstan was the sign of a public house, No. 2, Fleet Street, at one time much frequented by lawyers.        

“Into the Devil Tavern three booted troopers strode.”


Pull devil, pull baker. Lie, cheat, and wrangle away, for one is as bad as the other. (In this proverb baker is not a proper name, but the trade.)

“Like Punch and the Deevil rugging about the Baker at the fair.”—Sir W. Scott: Old Mortality, chap. xxxviii.

Talk of the devil and he’s sure to come. Said of a person who has been the subject of conversation, and who unexpectedly makes his appearance. An older proverb still is, “Talk of the Dule and heʹll put out his horns;” but the modern euphemism is, “Talk of an angel and youʹll see its wings.” If “from the fulness of the heart the mouth speaketh,” their hearts must be full of the evil one who talk about him, and if the heart is full of the devil he cannot be far off.        

“Forthwith the devil did appear,

For name him, and he’s always near.”


Prior: Hans Carvel.

To hold a candle to the devil is to abet an evildoer out of fawining fear. The allusion is to the story of an old woman who set one wax taper before the image of St. Michael, and another before the Devil whom he was trampling under foot. Being reproved for paying such honour to Satan, she naïvely replied: “Ye see, your honour, it is quite uncertain which place I shall go to at last, and sure you will not blame a poor woman for securing a friend in each.”

To kindle a fire for the devil is to offer sacrifice, to do what is really sinful, under the delusion that you are doing God service.

To play the very devil with [the matter]. To so muddle and mar it as to spoil it utterly.

When the devil is blind. Never. Referring to the utter absence of all disloyalty and evil.

“Ay, Tib, that will be [i.e. all will be true and loyal] when the deʹil is blind; and his eʹen’s no sair yet.”—Sir W. Scott: Guy Mannering (Dandie Dinmont to Tib Mumps), chap. xxii.


previous entry · index · next entry


Entry taken from Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, edited by the Rev. E. Cobham Brewer, LL.D. and revised in 1895.

previous entry · index · next entry

Devil and Tom Walker (The)
Devil catch the Hindmost (The)
Devil in Dublin City (The)
Devil looking Over Lincoln. (The)
Devil loves Holy Water (As the)
Devil-may-care (A)
Devil must be Striking (The) (German)
Devil on the Neck (A)
Devil rides on a Fiddlestick (The)
Devil Sick would be a Monk (The)
Devil to Pay and no Pitch Hot (The)
Devil (A)
Devil’s Advocate (The)
Devil’s Apple
Devil’s Arrows (Yorkshire)
Devil’s Bird (The)
Devil’s Bones
Devil’s Books
Devil’s Cabinet (The)
Devil’s Candle
Devil’s Current (The)