Between Devil and Deep Sea

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  • Topic: Idiom, Phrase
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  • Published : October 2, 2012
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AN ARTICLE ON THE IDIOMATIC PHRASE
“BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP SEA”

A common idiomatic expression in use in many English speaking countries is the reference to being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Among the most popular of English sayings, the origin of this particular idiom is routinely debated, with some tracing the saying back to the days of Roman and Greek mythology. Whatever the origin, the expression has come to refer to being caught in a dilemma involving only two options, with neither option offering any clear benefits.

There is some evidence that the phrase once involved simply being caught "between the devil and the deep sea." References to a "deep blue sea" emerged during the 20th century with the popularization of a song that added the blue reference to the familiar idiom. Over the years, this new and improved expression has caught on in popular use even among those who have never heard the song.

The phrase may have been a nautical reference to the deep sea and a "devil", a seam (where two hull planks meet) that is difficult to reach on a ship. It may have been a reference to being a member of the lower deck or crew of a sailing ship in the English Navy. Such sailors were often pressed into service unwillingly. One who was "between the devil and the deep blue sea" would literally be beneath the upper deck (officer territory) and thus a member of the crew. Another possible origin involves the fact that "devil" was a name for the longest seam of a wooden ship, which ran from the bow to the stern. When at sea and the devil had to be caulked, the sailor sat in a bosun's chair to do so. He was suspended between the devil and the sea, a very precarious position, especially when the ship was underway. If sailors fell from a footrope under a yardarm, they would either land on the deck (within the devil plank) or in the water (outside of the devil plank). Either option is likely fatal. However, this nautical origin is...
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