“The Devil Is in the Details” – Phrase Origin

There’s a certain mystery to the source of the phrase “the devil is in the details.” While it appears to have originated in either German or Scandinavian culture, there are various theories about where exactly this phrase was used first and why.

The origin of the phrase “The devil is in the details” is unclear. However, multiple sources state that it’s a variation on the phrase “God is in the details,” used in the mid to late 1800s by either Gustave Flaubert or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

This article will explore how to use this phrase and what it means. I’ll also discuss its origin to help you better understand the context in which to use it.

The History of the Phrase “The Devil Is in the Details”

The phrase “the devil is in the details” is often used to describe the importance of paying attention to details. But where did this phrase come from? Although there are several recorded variations of the phrase, its true origin is unknown.

The most likely explanation (in terms of the earliest recorded usage) is that it originates from the French saying “le bon dieu est dans le détail” (God is in the details) by French novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880).

Interestingly, this phrase had a different meaning than what it stands for today.

The Meaning of “God Is in the Details”

The saying “God is in the details” implies that you should look closely at something and see what makes it special

For example:

  • The subtle nuances in a portrait that makes the work of art truly magnificent. 
  • The different flavors of a dish that make a delicious meal taste divine.
  • The intricate details of a beautiful dress that make it look stunning. 

Finally, details are what make a great story more captivating, like Gustave Flaubert’s literary masterpiece, Madame Bovary, written in 1857.

Initially, the phrase was used positively to praise someone for their attention to detail. In this case, “God Is in the Details” emphasizes the crucial nature of the tiny details in any work.

The Use of “God Is in the Details”

Another early use of the phrase “God is in the details” can be attributed to the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969). He used to state that “God was in the details” (der liebe gott steckt im detail) when it came to describing the beauty of his buildings.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was a popular modern architect in the early to mid-1900s. He used “God is in the details” as a simplification of his approach to design, which heavily emphasized simplicity and functionality.

For Mies, every element of a building had to serve a purpose and form an essential part of the overall design. This intense attention to detail is what made his buildings iconic and timeless.

There is also evidence that attributes this phrase to the German art historian Aby Warburg (1866–1929). Aby Warburg was best known for his work on the history of art and culture. One of his most famous lecture quotes in 1925-26 was entitled “God is in the details” (der liebe gott steckt im detail). 

And it’s no surprise that he also used this phrase to describe the importance of things that weren’t immediately apparent in a work of art. However, while the phrase usually refers to nuances and subtle details, Warburg was actually referring to something else.

He was talking about the importance of symbolism and meaning in art. To Warburg, the details were not confined to the physical appearance of an art piece and included the deeper meaning behind the work.

The Meaning of “The Devil Is in the Details”

Since its introduction, the “God” phrase has been used many times in print and conversation.

However, in the mid to late 1900s, “God” was changed to “Devil.” Instead of its conventional meaning, the phrase was used to convey the idea that something that seems small or inconsequential can actually be very important.

Today, the phrase is used both literally and metaphorically to emphasize that the devil, or the source of evil, resides in the small details.

Around the mid-1900s, “the devil in the details” was often used to describe situations where people had missed something important because they were too focused on the small details. This saying is especially relevant when it comes to business because it’s important to pay attention to the details as they can make or break a deal.

For example, if you’re negotiating a contract, you must ensure that the contract details are entered correctly. Otherwise, you may end up with a contract that doesn’t provide what you want. 

The Use of “The Devil Is in the Details”

So, where did this phrase come from? There are various theories about its origin, but the most likely explanation is that it comes from The Community of Europe (1963), written by Richard Mayne.

In this book, Mayne emphasized that “the devil is in the details” during his account of a committee meeting in which European foreign ministers discussed how to negotiate with and assist countries that had been invaded.

In this context, the phrase implied that the success of a project depends on the attention paid to the finer details. If a single detail is overlooked, the mistake could jeopardize the entire project.

Such attention to detail was especially important for complex work like rebuilding the European continent. In such a significant project, the details held more weight and overlooking a single one could have led to serious consequences.

Proverb or Idiom? 

You might wonder if the phrase we’ve spoken about so much is considered a proverb or an idiom. 

A proverb is a straightforward, catchy phrase that summarizes a commonly held belief, truth, or myth. Most proverbs are ancient and have unknown origins. The phrase “the devil is in the details” is an example of a popular proverb.

Proverbs are often metaphorical and employ concise language to convey a clear message. They are usually memorable and can be used in various circumstances to describe different situations. As such, proverbs are a valuable aspect of language and are used to add color and depth to our speech and writing.

On the other hand, an idiom is a phrase or expression with a meaning that isn’t literal. Most idioms have a defined and widely-accepted meaning that can only be understood by the context in which it is used. 

For example, if you say someone is “under the weather,” you mean to say that they are sick. This phrase is an idiom because “under the weather” doesn’t imply that the person is literally under the weather. As such, idioms are sentences that can’t be understood literally. “Break a leg” is another popular example that actually means “good luck!” or “give a good performance!”.

Popularity of “The Devil Is in The Details”

Since the mid-60s, “the devil is in the details” has slowly made its way into everyday conversation by being used as a proverb. When a phrase is circulated in published books and used in the right context, it starts to catch on through repeated exposure.

Soon, the phrase is used in publications, newspapers, magazines, and other written content and, eventually, enters the collective consciousness.

This phrase is excellent as it is laden with meaning and can be applied to various circumstances. As with any complicated situation, where a person makes a mistake by simply missing out on aspects of a project, the “devil” is usually in the details.

Conclusion

What started as a mid-1800s French and German saying for something special and mighty (“God is in the details”) has transformed over time to highlight the negative consequences of not paying attention to the smaller details. 

However, the phrase can also be used to say that details are troublesome and can make a simple task incredibly complex. The tiny details can turn a small mistake into a big problem and raise something seemingly insignificant to the highest level.

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