The Devil incarnate


What's the meaning of the phrase 'The Devil incarnate'?

The Devil in human form.

What's the origin of the phrase 'The Devil incarnate'?

In 16th century England the devil was considered to be a real living entity that roamed the land and was able to transform itself, or at least inhabit, other living beings. The expression ‘the devil in human form’ wasn’t a metaphor as we might use it now but an actuality. The first reference to it that I know of in print is in the collection of tragic poems The Mirour for Magistrates, 1578:

A wicked wretch, a kinseman most vnkynde [unkind],
A Deuil incarnate, all deuilishly enclynde [inclined]

The expression must have been in common usage in the late 16th century as Shakespeare also used it, without any explanation, in King Henry V, 1598, and Titus Andronicus, 1588:

Henry V – Boy: Yes, that a’ did; and said they were devils
incarnate.

Titus Andronicus – LUCIUS: O worthy Goth, this is the incarnate devil
That robb’d Andronicus of his good hand.

Trend of the devil incarnate in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.