The devil has found his way into several idioms in the English language, where his name lends gravitas to the sentiments conveyed. But in some instances, this has been diminished by the frequency and liberality with which the phrases are spoken.
“Speak of the devil” is a shortened form of the longer phrase, “Speak of the devil, and he doth appear.” This was a proverb intended to warn people that dangers may result from uttering the devil’s name and thus prohibit them from doing so.
The rest of the article will go deeper into the interesting origins of this phrase and discuss its definition, usage, and its place in popular culture. So stick around, or the devil might appear.
The Saying “Speak of the devil”: History, Meaning, and Use
Idioms appear in our lexicon from vastly different sources from all sources of inspiration. In some cases, their origins are so deeply rooted in religion that they might rival lesser holy relics for historical depth. One such ecclesiastical phrase is “Speak of the devil.”
The Origin Of the Phrase “Speak of the devil”
The earliest recorded use of the idiom “Speak of the devil” is credited to the Italian writer Giovanni Torriano when in 1666, he wrote in the Piazza Universale di Proverbi Italiani:
“The English say, Talk of the Devil, and he’s presently at your elbow.“
The sayings “talk of the devil” and “speak of the devil” are still interchangeably used in England, where they have their origins. In this form, it is derived from two different phrases that serve as its roots:
- Talk of the Devil, and he’s presently at your elbow.
- Talk of the Devil and see his horns.
Both of these express a singular sentiment. Simply put, if you say the devil’s name, he will appear.
The phrase “Speak of the devil” affirms the very same, and in this particular wording, it can be traced back to the 1600s, when it was better known in its complete form, “Speak of the devil and he doth appear.”
At the time, it was not an idiom but a proverb and a literal admonishment against what was then deemed as a very real threat.
The 15th and 16th centuries were an era when religion was heavily characterized by what most of us today would regard as superstition. Nevertheless, historically, it was believed that speaking the devil’s name was akin to invoking his presence and that he would indeed appear at the sound of it.
Other beliefs held that speaking the devil’s name would cause other demons to appear or cause ill luck to befall the speaker. Safeguards were thus taken against this happening, and substitutes were used in place of the devil’s name.
As a result, several monikers for the devil have come down to us.
The belief that the mention of an evil entity’s name would bring about some harm and the effort taken to keep from saying the said name is very well illustrated in the Harry Potter series. In these stories, people feared mentioning the name of Lord Voldemort, instead referring to him as “You-Know-Who” or “He Who Must Not Be Named.”
The Definition Of the Phrase “Speak of the devil”
“Speak of the devil, and he doth appear” was birthed as a proverb and an admonishment. It held back the imminent evil and the very presence of the devil himself should his name be uttered.
However, as time passed, it was shortened to just half of its original word count. It also began shedding its earnestness and spiritual significance until it eventually took on an entirely new definition.
Today, the phrase “Speak of the devil” is used as an exclamation when someone appears just as two or more people are speaking about them. It echoes the original sentiment of the phrase that speaking the name would cause the person so-named to appear.
It should be noted, though, that the word “devil” in this phrase has no negative connotation, and the “devil” in question could have been discussed in either a positive or negative light before their coincidental appearance.
People also would refer to others as “the poor devil” when talking about someone’s misfortunes, but this still doesn’t mean the actual devil or supernatural evil being.
The Usage Of the Phrase “Speak of the devil”
In modern usage, the idiom “Speak of the devil” has all but lost its original meaning. And however undesirable the subject of the phrase may be, the term “devil” no longer holds any spiritual significance.
The Context For the Phrase “Speak of the devil”
The word “devil” and the dark origins of the phrase give many people the idea that in its modern usage, “Speak of the devil” is applicable only when the subject is being spoken of in a negative tone.
However, that is not the case at all, although it certainly can be.
The “devil” being spoken of could very well have been the object of high praise before they made their unexpected appearance, and exclaiming “Speak of the devil” when they do would still be entirely appropriate.
“Speak of the devil” As a Cue
As I have stressed, “Speak of the devil” can be used even when speaking positively of someone. Sometimes, when this “devil” pops into the same room and is within earshot, the speakers exclaim, “Speak of the devil,” loud enough for them to hear it and bring them into the conversation.
However, in the opposite case, discretion is key.
“Speak of the devil” may be uttered discreetly as a warning by one person to another in a conversation in which the “devil” is being spoken ill of. When one of the speakers notices that the “devil” has suddenly appeared, they may quietly use the phrase to alert their companion to avoid saying anything more that might be overhead.
Example of “Speak of the Devil” in Conversation
The idiom is used colloquially when two or more people are talking, and as they begin discussing another person, the subject unexpectedly appears just as they are being spoken of. Take the following conversation, for instance:
Pierro: I finished reading Piazza Universale di Proverbi Italiani.
Lorenzo: It was an excellent read, wasn’t it?
Pierro: Indeed! I’d say it was one of Giovanni’s finest — Oh, speak of the devil! Here comes Giovanni!
“Speak of the devil” in Popular Culture
The English folk of the 1600s who took “Talk of the Devil and he’s presently at your elbow” and “Talk of the Devil and see his horns” literally would be absolutely horrified to learn that the devil is quite the pop culture icon nowadays.
But, in fact, that’s what he is. And the phrase warning against the evil uttering his name would bring has also found a place for itself in pop culture, particularly in music.
Its most popular listing is as the title of Ozzy Osbourne’s 1982 album, which would later influence a 2011 heavy metal band to the extent that they named themselves after the album and, by extension, after an idiom.
Another music group out of Durham, North Carolina, dubbing itself “Duke University’s Premier All-Male A Cappella Group,” has taken up the name “Speak of the Devil” as well. Additionally, a quick Spotify search of the phrase will turn up several songs by that title.
Whether it was the supernatural or just plain superstition that watered and fertilized the phrase “Speak of the devil,” one thing is for certain — it has grown to count itself among the most commonly invoked idioms today.
A proverb and an admonishment in its earlier years, it is now used with a common liberality that embeds it deeper into everyday parlance, where it adds color to the vocabularies of even those who might not know what exactly an idiom is.