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Between the devil and the deep blue sea & There's/there'll be the devil to pay

Posted by Bill Smith on November 21, 2003

In the previous discussion it was stated that "the devil" was the outermost seam in a ship's deck. Although I agree that being "between the devil and the deep blue sea" would be most precarious, I'm more convinced by an alternate explanation, because it encompasses both this phrase, and the phrase, "There'll be the devil to pay."

In this case, "the devil" was the lowest seam in the ship's hull, the one just above the keel. When the time came to re-caulk, it was common to deliberately beach the ship on its side at high tide. As the tide went out, the seams would gradually be exposed, the old caulking would be scraped out, and they'd be re-caulked.

Finally, the lowest seam, the devil, would uncover. Obviously, once the devil was scraped out, it had to be recaulked before the tide came in. It was the last to uncover, and the first to cover.

It is this urgency that gave rise to the phrase: "The devil to pay." Originally, it was something like, "Hurry up (with the other seams), there's (still) the devil to pay.

James Briggs, in the earlier thread, wrote: "The devil to pay: this saying has nothing whatsoever to do with 'Old Nick' or handing out money. It is part of a longer saying, the last bit of which has been nearly forgotten. It goes; 'The devil to pay, and no pitch hot'. "Paying" was the final step in re-caulking: pouring hot pitch into the seam that had just been re-caulked. The phrase conveys a sence of urgency, and dread.

This phrase seems to have mutated to: "(If we don't do X,) there'll be the devil to pay," or "(If this happens) there'll be the devil to pay.)

Finally, this meaning jibes better with keel hauling meaning of "Between the devil and the deep blue sea, which is precisely where the unfortunate victim is.

See also - the meaning and origin of:

The Devil to pay

Between the Devil and the deep blue sea