Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Devil May Care

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 3, 2013

When someone has a devil-may-care attitude, what it means is that he or she doesn’t worry about the results or consequences of his or her actions, and recklessly so. It’s actually a shortened idiom. The entire idiom is, “The devil may care, but I do not.”

In New Delhi, the Indian Express newspaper published on June 24, 2011 reported on the ICICI Banks, and their treatment of customers. It told the story of one customer in particular who had applied for a loan with which he hoped to buy a car, but he found out that a second loan in his name existed … one the customer hadn’t applied for, and for which he hadn’t signed. When he addressed the matter with the bank, the bank’s response was to have their customer charged with a criminal offence.

“How callous a banker can get is well illustrated by this case … It is a classic case where the respondent bank (ICICI) has adopted a devil-may-care attitude,” a district consumer forum bench headed by its president Rakesh Kapoor said while asking the bank to pay the damages. The bench, which also included its members S c Jain and Prem Lata, passed the judgment on a complaint filed by Delhi resident Anil Kumar Arora.

As for the final outcome of the criminal charges against the customer, the courts had this to say about the bank:

“The amount of harassment to which the complainant was subjected, against whom a criminal case was also filed, speaks volumes about the reckless, arbitrary, careless and callous manner in which this case was dealt with in the office of the ICICI bank,” the bench said.

Jumping back to November 10, 1943 journalist E.V.W. Jones covered the story of 19-year-old Nancy Oakes who begged a Bahamas Supreme Court jury to find her husband, Alfred de Marigny, innocent of the charge of murdering her millionaire father, Harry Oakes. It was a brutal murder followed by a sensational trial, and newspapers across that United States and Canada carried the Associated Press story entitled, “Nassaur Case May Go To Jury Today: Nancy Stands By Accused DeMarigny.” The article read in part:

The debonair De Marigny, pictured by the prosecution as a devil-may-care fortune hunter who killed his father-in-law because he feared he might lose a share of a vast estate, wept silently in the prisoner’s cage when his young wife started her testimony.

Now some who are painted as having a devil-may-care attitude are well-loved by the population as evidenced in the news article published in the Baltimore Morning Herald of November 26, 1903. Originally posted in the New York Evening Post, the article began with asking questions about the policy of pinpricks to which President Roosevelt was being subjected by Republican senators. The article included this paragraph for the newspapers’ readerships to consider:

It seems to us that the President’s betrayal of uneasiness only lays him open to fresh badgering. His unconcealed anxiety about the New York situation will give delight to every Hanna boomer West and South. As a rule, the country does not like to see a President advertising his eagerness for renomination.  Where is the big, good-natured, devil-may-care Roosevelt that we had fondly hoped was in the White House? The more worriment he confesses the more will his tormentors be encouraged to bait him. And if, by perchance advocating ship scandals, or letting down in the civil service, or throwing more offices to Platt, he makes it plain that his ambition is consuming, he will thereby but play into the hands of his enemies, and make his own ultimate disappointment the more probably.

Back on March 17, 1860 the New York Times published an article entitled, “The Slave-Trade: The Actual Character Of The Traffic.” The story was from St. Paul De Loando off the West Coast of Africa and had been written on January 25, 1860 (taking nearly 2 months to make to American shores for publication). The story carried this bit of insight:

The second class of slave-trade society are the semi-genteel cut-throats. This class includes in its ranks captains, supercargoes and officers of slavers. The law could make these gentry oscillate for half an hour between heaven and earth, with a rope around their necks, but it don’t. Out here they — especially the first two — are a well-dressed set, with plenty of money. They knock around in a devil-may-care style, drink plenty of liquor, are patronized by cutthroat number one and his set, and are often labeled “first-rate fellows.” They are not at all debarred from society here. Entirely unprincipled they are, of course; and some of them look as though they would cut your throat for a trifle.

A number of dictionaries state that the first published use of the expression was 1837 however none of them provided a source to support the claim. Idiomation, however, found it in “The Pickwick Papers” by Charles Dickens and published in 1837. Chapter 29 opens with this paragraph:

In an old abbey town, down in this part of the country, a long, long while ago–so long, that the story must be a true one, because our great-grandfathers implicitly believed it — there officiated as sexton and grave-digger in the churchyard, one Gabriel Grub. It by no means follows that because a man is a sexton, and constantly surrounded by the emblems of mortality, therefore he should be a morose and melancholy man; your undertakers are the merriest fellows in the world; and I once had the honour of being on intimate terms with a mute, who in private life, and off duty, was as comical and jocose a little fellow as ever chirped out a devil-may-care song, without a hitch in his memory, or drained off a good stiff glass without stopping for breath.

It’s doubtful, however, that Charles Dickens was the first to coin the expression as it also appeared in “The Warwickshire Hunt from 1795 to 1836” written by an author known only as Venator, and published in 1837 as well. In the prefatory remarks, the following is found:

This is the sort of witchering, not easily defined — but, by its votaries, pretty sensibly felt, in hunting the fox. The light-hearted high-spirited stripling, when cigaring it careless to cover, with a kind of a knowing demi-devil-may-care twist of his beaver, receives in his transit a benison from every real friend of the chase he may chance to pass; and the airy, eager zeal of the youthful aspirant to rolls, tumbles, and the brush, will flush his memory with the frolic gayety of other days, and animate his mind with reflections most welcome to his heart.

Philip Morin Freneau (2 January 1752 – 1832) wrote his poem “The Expedition of Timothy Taurus, Astrologer” in 1775. One of the verses includes the idiom as follows:

Then the soldier went out, to refresh at the inn —
Perhaps he did not — if he did it’s no sin —
he made his congee, and he bowed to us all,
And said he was going to Liberty Hall:
‘Tis certain he went, but certainly where
I cannot inform, and the devil may care.

That the thought wasn’t finished is immaterial as the implication is that the speaker in this poem does not care. Of note as well is the fact that the expression is used with the knowledge that readers understand what is meant by the author,

Idiomation believes the expression reaches back at least another 2 generations, to the 1720s.  This is based on Idiomation’s suspicions that the spirit of the idiom is a result of the Golden Age of Piracy (1715 – 1725) where on the High Seas pirates recklessly went about their business with no worry or concern as to any consequences resulting from their actions. The only being that might care about their actions would be, of course, the Devil hence the expression.

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9 Responses to “Devil May Care”

  1. I would say your ending supposition has merit. The fact that the published poem has shortened version of the idiom as well as all the other mentioned incidences supports the theory that the full version was around for at least a little while in order to get shortened. How long? Too long ago to tell, I guess. But about 2 generations is usually what it takes for these things to take on new meanings, etc.

    All in all, a good piece and one I enjoyed as I never knew it was a shortened version. Thanks!

  2. I was looking for the correct meaning of devil-may-care idiom, it is really interesting to learn this. And these real example are quite nice. Wonderful idioms. thanks.

  3. Pittie said

    And what about ‘Devil May Cry’, does it have the same meaning ?

    • That’s an excellent question, and research has begun on the idiom “devil may cry” to see if there is any connection between the two sayings, or if it is a separate idiom Thank you for suggesting it, Pittie.

    • References to the devil crying is addressed in Mosaic Law which forbids necromancy which deals with seeking answers about the future from the dead. This is perceived to be demoniacal intervention and for that reason, it endangers the soul of the person involved with necromancy. According to Isaias viii, 19, necromancers “mutter” when making predictions.

      While Idiomation was unable to locate the exact phrase “devil may cry” the following was found Chapter IX entitled, “Some More Visitors” in a novel entitled, “Wine and Walnuts; or After Dinner Chit Chat” written by Ephraim Hardcastle (citizen and dry-salter), and published in book form in 1823. The novel had previously appeared in serialized form in the “Literary Gazette: A Weekly Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts” magazine in 1820 under the nom de plume, Cockney Greybeard.

      So up Crispin went, muttering, “Now if this is another sham cry of wolf, the devil may cry war mutton for me.” The truth is, that Laguerre had drawn a humorous design of a tavern-dinner, to which Crispin had recently been invited, and was etching a private plate of the group, which was composer from the bookseller’s description of the party, who had, moreover, printed an account of the worthis to accompany the plate. These burlesques were not made public, and copies were only to be obtained by a certain number of Crispin’s patrons, for their private port-folios.

      In 2001, capcom developed and published a hack and slash video game titled, “Devil May Cry.” Originally, it was intended to be the fourth installment in the “Resident Evil” gaming franchise, however it didn’t fit with the “Resident Evil” story line.

      The fifth installment of this game was released on January 15, 2013.

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