Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Printer’s Devil

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 10, 2011

While it’s been quite some time since the term printer’s devil may have been used, there was a time when the expression was quite common.  Back in the day, a printer’s devil was the errand boy in a printing establishment.  Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain and Lyndon B. Johnson all had jobs as a printer’s devil when they were young lads.  In time, any errors that were found in print were referred to as a printer’s devil and so a printer’s devil also came to mean mistakes in the printed media.

On August 15, 2010 the Sunday Observer in Sri Lanka published a weekly column by Edwin Ariyadasa entitled, “Sunday Monologue.”  In that particular column, the following is found:

In some instances, the impish printer’s devil slinks past the keen eye of the editors, and gets embedded in the text of a column. On one glaring occasion, this miscreant was at work, on my column titled “World without Sir Arthur C.”  The mischievous printer’s devil, detected a letter I quoted. It was written by Sir Arthur C. on my 85th birthday. It began with the routine Dear Edwin. Resenting this endeavourment, the terrible imp, Printer’s Devil turned it with “Deer Ediwn.”

On January 19, 1954 the Calgary Herald ran this obituary about retired Senator William Henry Dennis who had passed away suddenly at the age of 66.  The obituary read in part:

Senator Dennis was appointed to the Senate in 1932 by Rt. Hon. R. B. Bennett, former Conservative prime minister.  He joined the Halifax Herald when he was 12 years old as a printer’s devil and worked his way in managing director and then publisher.  He returned to Ottawa Sunday night from his home in Halifax for resumption of Senate sittings tonight.  He died at his Ottawa residence.

On October 23, 1902 the Fielding Star newspaper for Kiwitea and Oroua counties in New Zealand ran a story entitled, “Church And The Press.”  The story addressed the Church Congress, the opening address by the Right Reverend Dr. Harmer and newspapers.  The following is found in this news report:

After this excellent tribute, the Congress was prepared to join with interest in a debate on “Church and Press,” when the first speaker was an Adelaid Pressman, Mr. W. J. Sowden, who declared himself and his brethren to be emphatically on the side of the angels.  “Although there is a printer’s devil in the newspaper office, there is also a chapel,” said Mr. Sowden, and a clergyman quoted, “When God erects a house of prayer, the devil builds a chapel there.”

Slipped between serious news stories in the January 18, 1853 edition of the British Colonist and North American Railway Journal was a 4-line poem signed quite simply, Printer’s Devil.  The poem, in its entirety is reproduced here.

A dollar a year, said Dick for the Sun,
Isn’t that cheap? — young son of a gun!
As “cheap as dirt” — said I with a quiz
And so it should be, for dirt it is.

In the song “Ode To The Printer’s Devil” composed by Ned Ward in June 1823, the author states that it is “an ode founded on fact” and is written for the printer’s devil “who brought me a proof to be corrected, and who fell asleep while it was undergoing correction: — being.”

On January 3, 1791 the Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer ran a story in which the expression “printer’s devil” is used and again a year later on May 7, 1792 in an obituary for Reverend John Lewis, Pastor a church in Wethersfield.

The first printer — as well as the first retailer of printed books — in England was translator and publisher, William Caxton (1422 – 1492) whose first book printed in England was the self-published, “Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres” on November 18, 1477.  But this was not his first shot at being a printer.  Because “[his] pen became worn, [his] hand weary, [his eye dimmed” he decided to set up a press in Bruges in 1473. 

At the time, the printing industry was in its infancy and it was significantly influenced by German printing.  The first book produced by William Caxton at this press and printed in English was ” Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye” in 1474, followed by “The Game And Playe Of The Chesse” published in 1476.  He published most of the English literature available in his day including Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

As a side note, Chaucer imported printing blocks and letters from Germany where there was no “the” sound.  To solve the problem of the non-existent “th” he placed the letter “y” in its place.  And so, “the” appeared as “ye” in published works and the practice of using “y” in place of “th” continued for another 200 years until publishers finally used “th” where “th” was meant to be used.

Rumour has it that he had an apprentice whose last name was Deville.  Unfortunately, Idiomation was unable to find proof that such an individual apprenticed under Caxton.  What Idiomation can confirm is that somewhere in the 300 years between William Caxton‘s death and the phrase appearing in a newspaper story in Connecticut in 1791, the printer’s devil was born.

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