devil to pay
This phrase arises out of the metaphor of selling one’s soul to Satan, a Faustian bargain. The earliest known use of the devil to pay is from 25 September 1711 letter published in Jonathan Swift’s The Journal to Stella:
The Earl of Strafford is to go soon to Holland, and let them know what we have been doing: and then there will be the devil and all to pay; but we’ll make them swallow it with a pox.1
There is a common belief that the phrase is nautical in origin and comes from the unpleasant task of caulking a ship’s keel, but this is not the case.
In the alleged nautical origin, the devil is a sailor’s name for the seam that runs along the length of a ship’s keel and the verb to pay means to smear or cover a seam with pitch or tar to make it watertight. This sense of pay is different from the transaction sense, coming instead from the Middle French poier and ultimately from the Latin picare, meaning to smear with pitch. Nautical enthusiasts claim that the sailor’s phrase the devil to pay and no pitch hot is the original form. But that nautical form does not appear until 1744, several decades after the shorter form is attested to. From the 1744 Gentleman’s Progress: The Itinerarium of Dr. Alexander Hamilton:
It was the devil to pay and no pitch hot? An interrogatory adage metaphorically derived from the manner of sailors who pay their ship’s bottoms with pitch.2
It appears that the sailor’s expression is a play on words based on the shorter, Faustian sense.
1Jonathan Swift, The Journal to Stella, edited by George A. Aitken (London: Methuen & Co., 1901), 304.
2Bartlett Jere Whiting, Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1977), 105.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton