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Posts Tagged ‘Gustave Flaubert’

The Devil Is In The Details

Posted by Admin 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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Off The Cuff

Posted by Admin on July 4, 2011

When you spontaneously say or do something without preparation or rehearsal, this is what’s meant by saying or doing something off the cuff.

The AFP Global Edition published a news story on September 8, 2009 entitled “Barack Obama Is Warning About Stupid Facebook Posts.”  The story dealt with President Obama’s advice to a group of high school students about the consequences of social networking sites and the prospective employers who view comments posted by job applicants.  He shared the following with these teenagers:

Obama’s advice about the perils of modern technology were born of bitter experience, as he has fallen victim to the YouTube age of modern campaign politics several times himself when off-the-cuff remarks or events have shown up on web videos or blogs.  At one stage, his 2008 election campaign was rocked by inflammatory past speeches by his former pastor Reverence Jeremiah Wright which were posted on YouTube.

Just a little over a year before that, Larry Richter wrote a news story for the New York Times entitled, “The Candidates Speak Off The Cuff, And Trouble Quickly Follows.”  The opening paragraph stated:

At this rate, both John McCain and Barack Obama may want to rethink their fondness for town-hall-style meetings. Both have embroiled themselves in controversies this week as a result of departing from scripted campaign speeches and speaking off the cuff.

On December 2, 1950 the News And Courier newspaper in Charleston, South Carolina ran a news story on Page 4 entitled, “Confusion Over The Bomb.” The story began with this revelation:

Mr. Truman’s irresponsible remarks about use of the atomic bomb, first announced off the cuff at a press conference and later partially retracted or “clarified” in a White House statement, may have placed the country in grave peril.  It should be obvious that if Russia thinks the United States intends to use the bomb, the Kremlin might very well try to beat Mr. Truman to the punch. 

Now back in 1882, the tune for “America, The Beautiful” is said to have come to Samuel Ward while he was on a ferryboat trip from Coney Island going back to his home in New York City.  After a relaxing summer’s day, he found himself inspired.  Worried he might forget the tune in his head, he asked fellow passenger and close friend, Harry Martin, to give him his shirt cuff so he could jot down the tune.  There are many who claim that this is the first use of the expression “off the cuff” both figuratively and literally.

Now as lovely as that story sounds, it is not the origin of the expression “off the cuff.”  In fact, Gustave Flaubert (1821 -1857)  wrote a letter to his mother in 1850 apologizing for writing to her off the cuff.  In return, his mother wrote to him while he was in Constantinople, praising him on the tone and style of the letters he had written and sent to her that year, reassuring him that she was unaware they had been written “off the cuff.”

But it’s still unclear how the expression “off the cuff” came about in the first place.  Some say that bartenders used to keep track of patron’s tabs and of the bar prices with special markings they made on the starched cuffs of their shirts.  Supposedly, at a glance, bartenders could quote a price or tally a tab seemingly ‘off the cuff.’  While that certainly sounds plausible, it brings to mind a couple of problems: what happened when the bartender was ill for the day or another bartender took over for the balance of the day?  So, one can discount that explanation entirely as well.

It’s a fact that back in the day, men’s formal white shirts collars and cuffs were made of celluloid and were occasionally used as improvised notepads in dire circumstances.   Mrs. Hannah Lord Montague of Troy, New York invented the detachable collar in 1827 as a way to solve the ongoing difficulties she was experiencing with her husband’s “ring around the collar” problem.  It didn’t take long for her invention to catch on but it did take until the mid-1800s for cuffs to be made similarly to the collars. 

This seems to jive with Gustave Flaubert‘s use of the expression “off the cuff” which implied his words were easily cast off just as the new-fangled collars and cuffs could be cast off — and new ones put on — by the wearer.

Idiomation was unable to find a published version or mention of cuffs that could easily be written on prior to the invention of the cuffs thanks to Mrs. Hannah Lord Montague.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »