Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Devil To Pay

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 9, 2011

When someone tells you that there’s the Devil to pay, you’re being told there’s trouble to be faced as a result of your actions.  There appear to be two very different origins for this phrase, both of which are very interesting. 

Let’s take a look at the first origin.

On January 21, 2010 Forbes magazine published an article by Daniel Fisher entitled “The Global Debt Bomb” which addressed the worldwide recession and what would be involved in paying off debt in a number of countries, not just America.  The article stated in part:

National governments will issue an estimated $4.5 trillion in debt this year, almost triple the average for mature economies over the preceding five years. The U.S. has allowed the total federal debt (including debt held by government agencies, like the Social Security fund) to balloon by 50% since 2006 to $12.3 trillion. The pain of repayment is not yet being felt, because interest rates are so low–close to 0% on short-term Treasury bills. Someday those rates are going to rise. Then the taxpayer will have the devil to pay.

Now back on June 1, 1900 the Edwards’ Fruit Grower and Farmer newspaper related quite an intriguing story.

Judge Houtchens and Mr. Noll fished until they got tired and started for camp.  They reached an Indian tepee and there found Mr. Gagnon asleep.  He had missed the camp.  They had done the same.  They explained their predicament as best they could to the Indian and he offered to guide them to their camp for $10, which they paid.

The Indian earned his money.  He guided them back to the lake and then in an entirely opposite direction from that they took on leaving the lake, he led them to where the wagon, Judge Ross — and the ammunition — were.   The horses were gone.  The judge said he had watered and fed the animals and lain down to take a snooze while they were eating.

Here was the devil to pay — in the shape of an Indian.  He demanded $10 to guide them to Arlee and $10 more to find the horses.  They closed with the offer, paid him $10 in cash and Mr. Gagnon volunteered to stay with the wagon — and ammunition — until the horses were found; and then pay the remainder of the sum agreed upon.  The Indian piloted the men safely to the railroad. 

He then returned to his squaw, who had the horses concealed, in a thicket. She brought up the fiery, untamed animals, which they rode into camp, and after assisting Mr. Gagnon to harness them to the wagon, demanded $10 more to guide him to the railroad.  He paid it.  When the main road was reached the Indian pointed west and told Phil that was the way to Missoula, but he had his bearings at least and started off in the opposite direction.

Almost a hundred years before that, the Courant newspaper of Hartford, Connecticut published a news story entitled, “The Devil‘s To Pay.”  The news story began with:

There is an old Gentleman in my neighborhood, a man of good sense and moderate in his politics, with whom I sometimes spend a leisure hour in familiar conversation. Calling on him the other day, and asking if he had any news, he replied with some earnestness, news! news! Yes, the devil‘s to pay.

And nearly 100 years before that, Thomas Brown wrote “Letters From the Dead to the Living” published in 1707.  The following passage is found:

Do not you know damnation pays every man’s scores and tho’ we tick’d in the other world for subsistence, it was not with a design to cheat you or any body else? for we knew we should have the Devil to pay one time or other; and now you see, like honest men, we have pawn’d our souls for the whole reckoning, and so a start for our creditors: you see we had rather be damn’d than not to make general satisfaction, and yet, you are not satisfied.

This origin for the phrase reaches to John Faustus, the conjurer of Wittenberg in Germany, who sold his soul to the Devil in the book “Historia von D. Johann Fausten” published in 1587 with a number of subsequent Faust books published in that era.  That being said, making deals with the Devil goes back to the Bible as seen in Matthew 4:1-11.  It begins with:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

And it ends with:

Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.”  Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.’”  Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.

As readers learned from yesterday’s entry “Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” the devil, in nautical terms, is a seam in the planking of a wooden ship on, or below, the waterline.  Since seams need caulking, and caulking with pitch was called paying — from the Old French word “peier” meaning to pitch — whoever was charged with the job of caulking the seam in the planking of a wooden ship had the Devil to pay.

This use of paying in this context is recorded in the book “Discovery of Barmudas”  written by Sil Jourdan and published on October 13, 1610.

The greatest defects we found there, was tarre and pitch for our ship, and pinnis, in steede whereof wee were forced to make lime there of a hard kind of stone, and use it: which for the present occasion and necessitie, with some wax we found cast up by the Sea, from some shipwracke, served the turne to pay the seames of the pinnis Sir George Sommers built, for which he had neither pitch nor tarre …

And so readers can see that the nautical reference shores up all of the above and the Bible is the first to make references about poor choices leading to the poor person having the Devil to pay.

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