Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

The Devil Is In The Details

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 22, 2014

The devil is in the details is one of those sayings that sound great but not too many people are able to figure out what it means. Its meaning is similar to the one implied when speaking about a ghost in the machine or deus ex machina. In other words, details are important and when details are overlooked, problems arise.

For example, if your grandmother is knitting you a sweater and she drops a stitch early on in the pattern, you can be guaranteed that when she’s finished knitting that sweater, it’s going to have a mistake in it and all because she overlooked that dropped stitch. If you or your grandmother claim that the sweater is perfect, that’s not quite true as will be borne out in the details (the dropped stitch).

Another example has to do with contracts and fine print. When handed a contract, a quick read through usually doesn’t send up any red flags. Later on, however, red flags might start going up when reading the fine print that’s an integral part of that contract. If you sign without paying attention to the fine print (the details), you could be in for a sorry surprise later on.  Why? Because the devil’s in the details.

Earlier today (22 January 2014), in screenwriter and columnist,Robert J. Elisberg’s article about Democratic Texas state senator, Wendy Davis and published on the Huffington Post website. There’s been considerable controversy of late with regards to her back story, and while the overall story is correct, there seem to be discrepancies in the details according to some. The article was aptly entitled, “The Devil Is in the Details.”

In 1996, Kenneth S. Brentner of the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virgina presented his paper at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics conference. His presentation was about the “accurate prediction of the aeroacoustic field generated by aerospace vehicles or nonaerospace machinery” that is necessary to control and reduce source noise. Idiomation doesn’t pretend to understand what was revealed in the presentation. The title of the paper, however, was “Numerical Algorithms for. Acoustic Integrals: The Devil Is In The Details.”

In 1978, journalist Robert Rowen reported on the meeting of European heads of state in Bremen, West Germany. His article was published in the Washington Post newspaper on July 8 and stated:

European heads of state yesterday announced agreement to study a new monetary stabilization system for Europe. . . The details will not be worked out at least until the December meeting of the council —and perhaps not by then. ‘There is an old German saying,’ an experienced hand here reminded, ‘that the devil is in the details.’

In the 520-page book entitled, “Weapon Systems Acquisition Process, Hearings Before The Committee of Armed Services: United States Senate” from December 1971. Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the idiom was used in the publication.

They have no time for the details of their day to day operations. But, as you and I know, the devil is in the details. They do not appear to understand that no company has a license to stay in business forever.

And in 1937, German architect, poet, and writer, Erhard Horst Bellermann was quoted as saying the devil is in the details. But even he wasn’t the first to use this expression. Jumping back to two more generations, German philologist, philosopher, cultural critic, poet and composer, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (15 October 1844 – 25 August 1900) is quoted as having said, “Der Teufel steckt im Detail” which translates directly to “the devil is in the details.”

This expression is found in a number of countries and is identified as a proverb. Italians know it as Il diavolo sta nei dettagli and the Spanish know it as El diablo está en los detalles. The Brasilians say O diabo está nos detalhes, while the Turks say Şeytan ayrıntıda gizlidir. However, at the same as this expression was being said in countries around the world, an opposite idiom was also being said.

Swiss architect, designer, painter, writer and urban planner, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret Gris (October 6, 1887 – August 27, 1965) aka Le Corbusier is quoted as having said often that God was in the details which is a direct translation of the French saying, le bon Dieu est dans le detail.  Le Corbusier’s colleague, German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (27 March 1886 – 19 August 1969) aka Mies was quoted in newspapers articles, saying that when it came to his buildings, God was in the details.

The saying was a favorite of French novelist, Gustave Flaubert (12 December 1821 – 08 May 1880) who is best known for his novel, “Madame de Bovary” which was published in 1857.

Despite in-depth research, Idiomation was unable to find the first published version of either the Devil is in the details or God is in the details, in any language. Idiomation is confident that some of our readers and visitors may hold clues to the history of this intriguing expression.

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3 Responses to “The Devil Is In The Details”

  1. mutanatia said

    This phrase made me think: it is true that I overlook things in my own research, and sometimes what I missed undoes the whole article. Once someone goes, “hey, you missed something,” I have to write it over again. Is this akin to the “dropped stitch” example?

  2. Yes, it is.

  3. […] * God is in the details: αποδίδεται σε πολλούς και κατά κάποιους (όχι επαρκώς τεκμηριωμένα) στον Mies van der Rohe, και στον ιστορικό τέχνης Aby Warburg. The good God is in the details – ‘Le bon Dieu est dans le detail’ στο original: αποδίδεται στον Gustave Flaubert. Governing is in the details και Τhe truth, if it exists, is in the details: πιο σύγχρονες εκδοχές, αγνώστου ταυτότητας. Για το Devil is in the details, δείτε εδώ. […]

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