the authentic origin of ‘the devil to pay’

The phrase the devil to pay means serious trouble to be dealt with.

This phrase refers to a person making a pact or bargain with the Devil: the heavy price has to be paid in the end. The best-known example is Faust (died circa 1540), a German astronomer and necromancer reputed to have sold his soul to the Devil. He became the subject of a drama by the German poet, playwright and scholar Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), an opera by the French composer, conductor and organist Charles François Gounod (1818-93) and a novel by the German novelist and essayist Thomas Mann (1875-1955).

However, the idea of making a pact with the Devil is much older. After his baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted after fasting forty days and forty nights. According to the gospel of Matthew, 4:8-11:

(King James Version – 1611)
8 Againe the deuill taketh him vp into an exceeding high mountaine, and sheweth him all the kingdomes of the world, and the glory of them;
9 And sayth vnto him, All these things will I giue thee, if thou wilt fall downe and worship me.
10 Then saith Jesus vnto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him onely shalt thou serue.
11 Then the deuill leaueth him, and behold, Angels came and ministred vnto him.

The English phrase is first recorded in a manuscript dating from around 1475:

Better wer be at tome for ay
Þan her to serue þe deuil to pay.

In this manuscript, at tome appears to be a scribal error for at home and the sentence seems to translate as:

It would be better to stay at home forever
Than to serve here to pay the devil.

(Here, to pay has its etymological sense of to pacifyto satisfy. Via Old French, to pay is from Latin pacareto appease, from the noun pax/pac-peace. The sense of paying arose from that of appeasing a creditor.)

However, this is an isolated occurrence, and the modern use of the phrase dates from the early 18th century. On 28th September 1711, in a letter to his friend, Esther Johnson (1681-1728), whom he called Stella and whom he may have secretly married, the Irish satirist, poet and Anglican cleric Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) wrote about the preliminaries of peace which were to be reluctantly accepted by the United Provinces of the Netherlands and to lead to the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713:

(1768 edition)
I came here a day sooner than ordinary, at Mr. secretary’s desire, and supped with him and Prior, and two private ministers from France, and a French priest. I know not the two ministers [sic] names; but they are come about the Peace. The names the secretary called them, I suppose, were feigned; they were good rational men. We have already settled all things with France, and very much to the honour and advantage of England; and the queen* is in mighty good humour. All this news is a mighty secret; the people in general know that a Peace is forwarding. The earl of Strafford is to go soon to Holland, and let them know what we have been doing: and then there will be the devil and all to pay; but we’ll make them swallow it with a pox.

(* Queen Anne)

Here, and all is an intensifier and the devil and all means a whole lot of trouble or work. On 17th November 1711, Swift wrote:

(1768 edition)
This being queen Elizabeth’s birth-day, we have the D–– and all to do among us.

A variant of the devil to pay, hell to pay is first recorded in The miscellaneous and whimsical lucubrations of Lancelot Poverty-Struck, an unfortunate son of Apollo; and author of the Westminster Magazine (London, 1758), by Joseph Lewis (floruit 1750-74):

Before that either gain’d the Day,
By Heaven! there was Hell to pay.


The devil to pay and no pitch hot is a different phrase. Here, the verb to pay means to seal the deck or seams of a wooden ship with pitch or tar to prevent leakage (it is from the Old Northern French verb peier, derived from the Latin verb picare, from the noun pix/pic-, meaning pitch). The term devil and the phrase were explained by the British naval officers William Henry Smyth (1788-1865) and Edward Belcher (1799-1877) in The Sailor’s Word-Book (London, 1867):

Devil to pay and no pitch hot. The seam which margins the water-ways was called the “devil,” why only caulkers can tell, who perhaps found it sometimes difficult for their tools. The phrase, however, means service expected, and no one ready to perform it. Impatience, and naught to satisfy it.

(It is unclear whether devil as a nautical term had much currency beyond its use in the phrase.)

In English Etymology; or, A Derivative Dictionary of the English Language (London, 1783), the Reverend George William Lemon, who perhaps was not acquainted with sailors’ terms, understood the phrase differently and thought that devil referred to Satan:

Pay the ship’s sides; […] pix; pitch; strangely debased by the French into poix, and then pronounced as if it was written pay, that is, to pitch the vessel’s sides; from hence is derived that common expression among the sailors, here’s the devil to pay, and no pitch hot; meaning, here’s the black gentleman come to pitch the vessel’s sides; i.e. come to assist us, and you have not so much as made the pitch-kettle hot enough to employ him; or, in other words, here are more hands come to help us, but nothing got in readiness to begin with.

The English antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose (1731-91) mentioned a variant in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (2nd edition – London, 1788):

To Pay. To smear over. To pay the bottom of a ship or boat; to smear it over with pitch: The devil to pay, and no pitch hot or ready. Sea term.

This nautical phrase is first recorded in 1744 in Gentleman’s progress: The Itinerarium of Dr. Alexander Hamilton, a travel diary by the Scottish-American physician and author Alexander Hamilton (1712-56) who wrote that he met in New York a certain H——d, who “affected being a witt and dealt much in pointed satyre, but it was such base metall that the edge or point was soon turned when put to the proof”:

(as published by The University of North Carolina Press in 1948)
He dealt much in proverbs and made use of one which I thought pritty significant when well applied. It was ‘the devil to pay and no pitch hot?’ An interrogatory adage metaphorically derived from the manner of sailors who pay their ship’s bottoms with pitch. I back’d it with ‘great cry and little wool, said the devil when he shore his hogs’, applicable enough to the ostentation and clutter he made with his learning.

It has often – and erroneously – been said that the devil to pay is a shortened form of the devil to pay and no pitch hot. But, since the latter is attested more than two centuries after – and is different in sense from – the former (the general use of which it has never affected), the devil to pay and no pitch hot is either a punning extension of the devil to pay or an entirely separate phrase.

(Similarly, the phrase between the devil and the deep blue sea is not of nautical origin.)


I have exposed several other folk etymologies, in particular in the following articles:
origin of ‘Indian summer’ and French ‘été sauvage’
The usual explanation of ‘Hobson’s choice’ is fallacious.
the authentic origin of ‘to rain cats and dogs’
origin of ‘once in a blue moon’
Kilkenny cats
the authentic origin of ‘a pretty kettle of fish’
to buy a pig in a poke vs. to let the cat out of the bag
origin of ‘to buttonhole’ (to detain in conversation)
origin of ‘point-blank’
origin of ‘to turn a blind eye’.

2 thoughts on “the authentic origin of ‘the devil to pay’

  1. What is “The miscellaneous and whimsical lucubrations of Lancelot Poverty-struck, an unfortunate son of Apollo; and author of the Westminster Magazine”? I see that it’s 18th century, or perhaps looks like it?


    1. Lancelot Poverty-Struck was the pseudonym of Joseph Lewis (floruit 1750-74), an artisan, author and briefly editor of The Westminster Gazette.


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