the devil to pay


portrait, said to be of Stella (Esther Johnson) - image Crawford Art Gallery - Cork, Éire

portrait, said to be of Stella (Esther Johnson)
image: Crawford Art Gallery – Cork, Éire







serious trouble to be dealt with





This expression refers to a person making a pact or bargain with the Devil: the heavy price has to be paid in the end. The best-known example is Faust (died circa 1540), a German astronomer and necromancer reputed to have sold his soul to the Devil. He became the subject of a drama by Goethe, an opera by Gounod and a novel by Thomas Mann.

However, the idea of making a pact with the Devil is much older. After his baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted after fasting forty days and forty nights. According to the gospel of Matthew, 4:8-11:

(New International Version)
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

The English expression is first recorded in a manuscript dating from around 1475:

Better wer be at tome for ay
Þan her to serue þe deuil to pay.

In this manuscript, at tome appears to be a scribal error for at home and the sentence seems to translate as:

It would be better to stay at home forever
Than to serve here to pay the devil.

(Here, to pay has its etymological sense of to pacify, to satisfy. Via Old French, to pay is from Latin pacare, to appease, from the noun pax/pac-, peace. The sense of paying arose from that of appeasing a creditor.)

However, this is an isolated occurrence, and the modern use of the phrase dates from the early 18th century. In The Journal to Stella, consisting of letters to his friend, Esther Johnson, whom he called Stella and whom he may have secretly married, the Irish satirist, poet and Anglican cleric Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) wrote, on 28th September 1711, about the preliminaries of peace which were to be reluctantly accepted by the United Provinces of the Netherlands and to lead to the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713:

I came here a day sooner than ordinary, at Mr. Secretary’s desire, and supped with him and Prior, and two private Ministers from France, and a French priest. I know not the two Ministers’ names; but they are come about the peace. The names the Secretary called them, I suppose, were feigned; they were good rational men. We have already settled all things with France, and very much to the honour and advantage of England; and the Queen* is in mighty good humour. All this news is a mighty secret; the people in general know that a peace is forwarding. 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.

(* Queen Anne)

Here, and all is an intensifier and the devil and all means a whole lot of trouble or work. In The Journal to Stella, on 17th November 1711, Swift also wrote:

This being Queen Elizabeth’s birthday, we have the D– – and all to do among us.


A variant of the devil to pay, hell to pay is first recorded in The miscellaneous and whimsical lucubrations of Lancelot Poverty-Struck, an unfortunate son of Apollo (1758), by Joseph Lewis (floruit 1750-74):

Before that either gain’d the Day,
By Heaven! there was Hell to pay.


The devil to pay and no pitch hot is a different phrase. Here, the verb to pay means to seal the deck or seams of a wooden ship with pitch or tar to prevent leakage (it is from the Old Northern French verb peier, derived from the Latin verb picare, from the noun pix/pic-, meaning pitch). The term devil and the phrase were explained by Admiral William Henry Smyth in The Sailor’s Word-Book (1867 edition):

Devil to pay and no pitch hot. The seam which margins the water-ways was called the “devil,” why only caulkers can tell, who perhaps found it sometimes difficult for their tools. The phrase, however, means service expected, and no one ready to perform it. Impatience, and naught to satisfy it.

In English Etymology; or, A Derivative Dictionary of the English Language (1783), the Reverend George William Lemon, who perhaps was not au fait with sailors’ terms, understood the phrase differently and thought that devil referred to Satan:

To pay, that is, to pitch the vessel’s sides ; from hence is derived that common expression among the sailors, “here’s the devil to pay, and no pitch hot” ; meaning, “here’s the black gentleman come to pitch the vessel’s sides” ; i.e. “come to assist us, and you have not so much as made the pitch-kettle hot enough to employ him” ; or, in other words, “here are more hands come to help us, but nothing got in readiness to begin with”.

And, in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1788 edition), Francis Grose mentioned a variant:

To Pay. To smear over. To pay the bottom of a ship or boat; to smear it over with pitch: “The devil to pay, and no pitch hot or ready”. Sea term.

This nautical phrase is first recorded in 1744 in Gentleman’s progress: The Itinerarium of Dr. Alexander Hamilton, a travel diary by the Scottish-American physician and writer Alexander Hamilton (1712-56):

He dealt much in proverbs, and made use of one which I thought pretty significant when well applied. 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.

It has often – and wrongly – been said that the devil to pay is a short form of the devil to pay and no pitch hotBut, since the nautical phrase is attested more than two centuries after – and is different in sense from – the shorter one, the general use of which it has never affected, it is either a punning extension of the latter or an entirely separate phrase.

(Similarly, between the devil and the deep blue sea is not of nautical origin.)

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