Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Devil Dances In Empty Pockets

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 5, 2013

If you’ve been told that the Devil dances in empty pockets, you’re being warned that people are more likely to cheat and steal if they don’t have money to buy what they want or need. In other words, it’s an extension of these sayings: the Devil finds work for idle hands, and idle hands are the Devil’s workshop. So if you have nothing to do and you have no money, the understanding is that the Devil will show up and find something for you to do … and it will be unlawful, immoral or both, and guaranteed to land you in a lot of hot water.

If the Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets)” is the title of a song written by Ken Spooner and Kim Williams, and recorded by American country music singer Joe Diffie. It was released in April 2011 and it reached #1 on Billboard’s country charts. The song’s chorus was this:

If the Devil danced in empty pockets, he’d have a ball in mine.
With a nine foot grand, a ten piece band and a twelve girl chorus line.
I’d raise some loot in a three-piece suit, give ’em one dance for a dime,
If the Devil Danced in empty pockets, he’d have a ball in mine.

The idiom was used in the title of a blog article at The Meadow Of Life blog. On April 15, 2008 the author discussed the credit crisis in the U.S. and how it affected global markets, and felt it was apt to entitle this piece “The Devil Dances in Empty Pockets.

Occasionally, a reporter will see an opportunity to include the saying in a tongue-in-cheek way as was seen in the Toledo Blade edition of March 10, 1996. The news story published about the Christian Nudist Conference in Longwood, NC made the news with its “buck naked” worshiping in an article entitled, “Naked Came The Preacher.” The article closed off with this comment:

Besides, if it is true that the devil dances in empty pockets, what’s the horned wonder going to do when all these folks begin to pray? And, after all, are we not all created equal by your maker, a fact which last week’s conference of naked Christians no doubt proved most emphatically? Good thing God has a sense of humor.

Now, unfortunately, this idiom isn’t one that appears often and in researching the idiom, it is credited as a Kurdish proverb, a German proverb, and an English proverb.   However, there is no attribution provided for any of those claims. But all is not lost as the expression is an extension of “the devil finds work for idle hands” which is credited to St. Jerome (345 – 420).

The spirit of the idiom is found in a moral from Aesop (620 – 560 BCE): “He that serves God for rewards will serve the Devil for better wages.”

What this means for the Devil dances in empty pockets is that while there are roots that are far-reaching, it doesn’t seem to be an idiom for which research yields results beyond the few mentioned here. If readers or visitors to the blog can provide a published version of this idiom along with the date it was published, by whom and where, Idiomation would be grateful for your help.

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