The Devil To Pay

Meanings of “The Devil To Pay”

The phrase “the devil to pay” means some serious trouble that arises as a result of a specific situation or obligation. It could be difficult in some situations or even a messy situation.

Origin of “The Devil To Pay”

The phrase “the devil to pay” seems to have originated from the word ‘devil.’ Its first use can be traced back to The Sailor’s Word-book, by William Henry Smyth that was published in 1865. However, it was the seam of a ship. Later, it was used by Thomas Brown in his book, Letters from The Dead to the Living. It was published in 1707. The phrase in this book goes thus; “we knew we should have the Devil to pay one time or other.” However, the first letter of the word ‘Devil’ was capital in this book. Later it appeared in its standardized form where the first letter was kept small instead of the capital one.

Examples in Literature

Example #1

The Devil to Pay (July 1st, 1863) by Iced Earth

“From the north and the west more rebels arrive
Thousands more and the fight multiplies
McPhearson’s ridge and the black hats strike
A rebel sharpshooter takes Reynolds’ life

This tragedy and what it brings
All the devastation
The reaper has his way
Men will kill, blood will spill
To preserve the nation
There’s the devil to pay.”

These two stanzas in the lyric talk about the American Civil War. The stanzas state how rebels started arriving on McPherson’s Ridge where Reynolds was killed. Iced Earth, the band, has beautifully sung the second stanza in a mournful tone to show the tragedy in which the blood was spilled mercilessly just to save the nation but ultimately, the band says, there was the devil to pay. The phrase has been used connotatively to show the multiplicity of meanings. 

Example #2

To Mr. Alexander Ross by Dr. Beattie

Since Allan’s death, nae body car’d
For anes to speer how Scotia far’d;
For plack nor thistle turned war’d,
To quench her drouth;
For, frae the cottar to the laird,
We all run South.
The Southland chiels indeed hae mettle
And brawly at a sang did ettle;
Yet we right couthily might settle
On this side Forth.
The devil pay them with a pettle,
The slight the North.

This stanza occurs in the poem sheds light on the book of poems of Mr. Alexander Ross. In this stanza, he mentions the death of their friend Allan, who died for Scotland. He states that all the people run toward the South to find refuge but “devil pay them with a pettle” by taking them just to just “slight of the north.” The phrase appears without the preposition ‘to’ though it means the same thing.

Example #3

The Devil’s Pay by George Wier

The story revolves around the death of a curator of the Rangers Museum of Texas. The suspect is the Ranger veteran, Walt Cannon. Bill Travis is assigned the task to find the real murder but wherever he goes, he finds new trouble facing him. That is why the novel has been titled with this phrase though the preposition ‘to’ is missing in it. Overall, it is a metaphorical representation of the story.

Example #4

Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends by David Wilton

“As in other cases, we have to go the lexicographic record. The phrase the devil to pay first appears in Jonathan Swift’s 1711 Journal to Stella, a context that has nothing to do with the sea. The phrase has at its origin the metaphor of a Faustian bargain. One pays the devil with one’s soul, a very high price. The devil to pay was mostly used by sailors means caulking the keel’s seam but as a humorous application of the Faustian metaphor. Devil is indeed a word used to refer to the seam along the keel of a ship, but the term does not appear until 1744, well after the phrase the devil to pay was in use. To pay is a nautical verb meaning to smear tar or pitch, dating from 1627. So it appears as if the sailors used the phrase as a play on their jargon word pay. The nautical use of the devil probably comes from the phrase, not vice versa.”

In these two passages, the author opposes the argument that the phrase has been derived from the sailors’ language. He is of the view that it first occurs in different meanings in Swift’s journal published back in 1711 and that the phrase was used in mariners’ language later.

Example in Sentences

Example #1: “He always finds the devil to pay after he comes home after a year or two from his foreign trip.”

Example #2: “Having had the devil to pay every time she met Dan, Nina knew she should keep away from him at all times.”

Example #3: “Hannah and her friend Sara were afraid they had the devil to pay if anyone found out about their shoplifting felony.”

Example #4: “Grisham does not care about the fact that he has the devil to pay as he is manipulative enough to handle situations.”

Example #5: “Katrina knew she had the devil to pay when she got back home after a midnight party. She started wondering if her mother would ground her.”