Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea
Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 8, 2011
The next time you hear someone is between the devil and the deep blue sea, express your condolences. What it means is that the poor soul has found himself or herself having to choose between two equally unpleasant situations.
On June 23, 2009 the Birmingham Mail in England published as news story entitled, “Press Whistleblowers Deserve to Be Protected.” It dealt with manner in which reporters have been treated in the past with regards to journalistic confidentiality and refusing to provide police with the sources for some of their stories. The story began with this paragraph:
It is no secret that the provincial press is battling for survival, trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea, the devil being the economic slump and the deep blue sea the internet revolution.
Back in 1931, Cab Calloway recorded the Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen jazz standard, “Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea.” It’s such a fun song that even George Harrison covered the song in 1988 showing how timeless the song truly is!
On November 24, 1950 the St. Petersburg Times published an article written by Marquis Childs entitled, “Democrats Are Caught Between The Devil And Deep Blue Sea.” It dealt with rising prices, the consumer price index, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and everything tied to it. The journalist launched into the story with this opening paragraph:
The more the Democrats contemplate the months ahead, the more they realize the trap they are in. That old phrase — between the devil and the deep blue sea — has rarely applied with such literalness as it does to the party in power.
“The Devil and the Deep Sea” is the title of a short story by Rudyard Kipling and published in 1898, and reprinted in subsequent short story collections in the early 1900s.
On March 4, 1875 the Colonist newspaper in Nelson, New Zealand reprinted a news story from the Otago Daily Times entitled, “A New Doctrine Of Election.” The story focused on Mr. Hare’s system of representation which was not well received by everyone.
This is to endanger the success of the party triumphing by splitting votes. More seats were lots to Mr. Gladstone at the last election by this mistake than in any other way. If any one thinks that we are exaggerating the possible difficulties of the situation, let him recall the elections he remembers best and he will find that the choice between the devil and the deep blue sea has been offered within his experience — not infrequently.
In nautical circles, the devil is a seam in the planking of a wooden ship on, or below, the waterline. When sailors fell from a footrope, they would either land on deck which was known as the devil plank or in the water which would be, of course, the deep blue sea. Understandably then, sailors talked about what little choice they had for their deaths when falling from a footrope, since their only choices were between the devil and the deep blue sea.
In Robert Monro’s book “His Expedition With The Worthy Scots Regiment Called Mackeyes” published in 1637, the following passage is found:
I, with my partie, did lie on our poste, as betwixt the devill and the deep sea; for sometimes our owne cannon would light short, and grase over us, and so did the enemies also, — till I directed an officer to our owne batteries, acquainting them with our hurt, and desiring they should stell or plant their cannon higher.
Since it was used with such ease in 1637, one can safely assume it was an established phrase at the time and most likely dates back to the early 1600s, if not farther. Unfortunately, Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of this phrase.