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Devil take the hindmost

Posted by Lewis on June 03, 2004

In Reply to: Devil take the hindmost posted by ESC on June 02, 2004

: : : Will any one please explain the meaning and origin, if possible, as I could not find it so far.


: : The phrase does not have an "its." It is rendered most often as "[Let][the] Devil take the hindmost," in which "Let the" or just "The" can precede "Devil," but don't have to. A typical use might be in: "It's every man for himself, and the Devil take the hindmost." Hindmost means, of course, the last in line. If you're in a line being chased by the Devil, then the one he's going to catch is going to be the last in line. It's a way of saying, "Don't be slow, because no one is going to stay behind and save you!" The expression dates from at least 1611 (OED Online). SS

: THE DEVIL TAKE THE HINDMOST - "To hell with the unfortunate. The proverb is found in print as early as 1620 in 'Philaster' by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. First attested in the United States in 'Colonial Record of Georgia . It is part of the proverb 'Every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost." From Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings by Gregory Y. Titelman (Random House, New York, 1996).

From recollection, I think it may have been a common way of expressing the military order to run away. A 'retreat' is supposed to be a repositioning rearwards in good order, whereas the expression 'every man for himself' gives permission for the unit under command to run away as best they can - a 'rout' - a command that would be most likely given when faced with overwealmingly superior forces, eg lightly-armed infantry facing cavalry (prior to the use of a square, unable to form square or without the weapons needed to defend a square).
the addition of 'and let the Devil take the hindmost' is giving emphasis to the consequence of not running away quickly enough. if one took the common soldiers' view that they were 'the damned' then saying that the devil would take them the emphasis was simply that they would lose their lives if they were at the back. this would be particularly true if infantry were being pursued by cavalry, who had little hesitation of riding down fleeing men.

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