contemporary etching of troop disposition at the beginning of the Battle of Breitenfeld (1631) — image: Wikimedia
between the devil and the deep blue sea: in a difficult situation where there are two equally unpleasant choices
The Latin equivalents of this phrase [see below] that its first known users gave in the 17th century show that it most probably originated in the image of a choice between damnation (“the devil”) and drowning (“the sea”).
The phrase is therefore comparable to between a rock and a hard place and to the French idiom entre le marteau et l’enclume, i.e. between the sledgehammer and the anvil.
The earliest form, between the devil and the Dead Sea, is first recorded in Adagia in Latine and English containing five hundred proverbs : very profitable for the vse of those who aspire to further perfection in the Latine tongue (London, 1621), by the cleric Bartholomew Robertson (floruit 1620):
A fronte praecipitium, a tergo lupi.
Betwixt the Deuill and the dead sea.
The Latin proverb a fronte praecipitium, a tergo lupi, literally a precipice in front, wolves behind, appeared with its Greek equivalent in Adagiorum chiliades (Thousands of adages – 1508), an annotated collection of Greek and Latin proverbs by the Dutch humanist and scholar Desiderius Erasmus (circa 1469-1536):
A fronte praecipitium, a tergo lupi
Ἔμπροσθεν κρημνός, ὄπισθεν λύκοι, id est A fronte praecipitium, a tergo lupi. Cum aliquis hinc atque hinc duobus maximis premitur malis, ut, in utruncunque inciderit, pereundum sit.
(translation: Denis L. Drysdall – University of Toronto Press, 2005)
An abyss in front, and wolves behind. When someone is hard pressed on both sides by two great evils, so that whichever he falls into, he is bound to be lost.
The schoolmaster and author William Walker (1623-84) gave a different Latin equivalent in the English-Latin phrase book Idiomatologia Anglo-Latina, sive Dictionarium Idiomaticum Anglo-Latinum (London, 1680):
Between the Divel and the dead sea.
Inter sacrum saxumque.
The Latin phrase inter sacrum saxumque is from Captivi (The Captives), a play by the Roman comic dramatist Titus Maccius Plautus (circa 250-184 BC):
Nunc ego omnino occidi,
Nunc ego inter sacrum saxumque sto, nec quid faciam scio.
Now am I utterly undone,
Now between the sacrifice and the stone do I stand, nor know I what to do.
The origin of inter sacrum saxumque (inter means between and que means and) is that, in the most ancient times, the animal for sacrifice (sacrum) was killed by being struck with a stone (saxum): to stand between the victim and the stone would therefore imply being in a position of extreme danger.
Another early form of the English phrase, between the devil and the deep sea, is first recorded in Monro his Expedition with the worthy Scots Regiment (called Mac-Keyes Regiment) levied in August 1626 (London, 1637), by Robert Monro (died 1680), a Scottish soldier who served as lieutenant-colonel in the Swedish army during the Thirty Years War; in the chapter titled The thirteenth Duty discharged at our Royall Leaguer of Werben on the Elve against Generall Tillio his Army, he relates the Battle of Breitenfeld, near Leipzig, in 1631:
I was ordained with my Musketiers to remain on our former Poste, his Majestie and the rest of the partie being retired within the Leaguer. Incontinent from our Batteries, our Cannon did play againe within the Leaguer, which continued the whole day, doing great hurt on both sides, where the whole time, I with my partie, did lie on our Poste, as betwixt the Devill and the deepe Sea, for sometimes our owne Cannon would light short, and grase [= graze] over us, and so did the enemies [= enemies’] also, where we had three shot with the Cannon, till I directed an Officer to our owne Batteries, acquainting them with our hurt, and desiring they should stell [= place] or plant the Cannon higher.
The form with blue seems to date from the second half of the 19th century only; for instance, in King and Queen County, Virginia (New York and Washington, 1908), Alfred Bagby (1828-1925), pastor of Mattaponi Baptist Church, quoted Diary of Civil War, by Dr. B. H. W., which contains the following for 14th November 1862:
To-day elections are held in New York and some eight other States north. Between the Democrats and Abolitionists at the North is as between the Devil and the deep blue sea—that is, one is about as bad as the other; for the Democrats even wish to force us back into the Union.
The reference to the sea in this phrase has suggested to some ‘etymologists’ a nautical origin: here, devil would be the sailors’ word defined by the British naval officers William Henry Smyth (1788-1865) and Edward Belcher (1799-1877) in The Sailor’s Word-Book (London, 1867):
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 word devil in this sense is first recorded in 1744 in the phrase the devil to pay and no pitch hot.
But the forms between the devil and the Dead Sea and between the devil and the deep sea of the phrase are attested more than a century before the nautical sense of devil. More importantly, the forms between the devil and the Dead Sea and between the devil and the deep sea did not first appear in nautical contexts; on the contrary, the Latin equivalents that were given associated the phrase with a precipice or with a stone, and Robert Monro described a land-battle.
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’.