“Speak of the devil” is a very popular idiom that is used in common speech among English speakers around the world. This idiom, like others, cannot be defined through its simple parts. This is one of the reasons that idioms are so challenging for non-English speakers to learn. “Speak of the devil” is suggestive of some malign entity when in fact, it refers to something else entirely.
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Meaning of “Speak of the devil”
The phrase “Speak of the devil” comes from the longer English phrase “Speak of the devil, and he shall appear.” It is used to acknowledge that someone who was the subject of discussion has entered into the conversation, into the room, or into the vicinity of the dialogue. The phrase changes a lot depending on the context. This is another element that is necessary for understanding how the idiom is being used.
Origin of “Speak of the devil”
Like almost all idioms, “speak of the devil” does not have a clear, defined origin. The phrase can be traced back to the 16th century where it was used to remind people not to speak of the devil. This is where the second half of the phrase, “and he shall appear,” becomes important. Other variations included “talk of the devil, and he’s presently at your elbow,” noted in 1666 in Giovanni Torriano’s Piazza Universale. Another version is found in Hazlitt’s Proverbs that reads “Talk of the Devil, and see his horns.”
Originally, the phrase was used to remind people that if one brings up the name of the devil, it’s more likely that something sinful will befall them. Richard Chenevix Trench, the then Dean of Westminster, wrote that the phrase “‘Talk of the devil and he is bound to appear’ contains a very needful warning against curiosity about evil.” The prohibition on speaking the devil’s name was similar to that against mentioning the name of God. It was a superstitious saying that’s been transformed into something generally much more light-hearted today.
When to Use “Speak of the devil”
“Speak of the devil” is used colloquially, like almost all idioms. This means that it’s used in common speech among friends, family members, and close colleagues. It is very unlikely that one will find this phrase in professional conversation, in a speech, or in academic writing. It should be used when someone, who a group was just talking about, joins in with the group or comes near them. It might be used in a negative sense, as in, “oh no, speak of the devil, here comes John” or it might be used more as an observation, like “Oh, and speak of the devil! Here’s Katie!” Alternatively, it is possible to change one’s inflection while speaking, making the phrase seem more or less lighthearted.
Example Sentences with “Speak of the devil”
- “What do you know, speak of the devil, here comes Adam now!”
- “Oh shoot, speak of the devil…”
- “Speak of the devil! Everyone shut up, here comes Sandy.”
- “Speak of the devil, here you are!”
Why Do Writers Use “Speak of the devil?”
“Speak of the devil” is one of the most flexible idioms in the English language. It can be written into a dialogue that’s meant humorously, superstitiously, cruelly, or simply as an observation. Due to the fact that the phrase is still in common use today, in normal everyday conversation, it’s quite easy to work into written dialogue. Unlike some idioms, this one is not quite as cliche. It still feels natural to read in a short story or novel.
In some examples, writers use the phrase in order to poke fun at the person who is, at that moment, the “devil” in the phrase. Depending on the tone of voice the speaker uses it’s possible to make the subject feel as though they were being spoken about negatively even if they weren’t. This is likely done in dialogue among friends. Or, if one is writing less likable characters, amongst bullies or enemies who want to make the subject feel uncomfortable and as if they’re not wanted in the conversation.
“Speak of the devil” in Popular Culture
One of the ways that the term was popularized, especially in recent years, was in the music and gaming industry. It is the title of Ozzy Osborne’s popular live album, released in November of 1982. It is also the name of songs by other artists such as Randy Rodger’s Band, Black Pistol Fire, A Day to Remember, and Sum 41. The idiom is also used as the name of a “quest” in Fallout 4 Creation Club.