Jewish World Review June 10, 2004 / 21 Sivan, 5764
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
'The devil to pay'; 'crack', as in 'a crack marksman'; 'the dog that didn't bark'
I've been told that the word ``devil'' in the expression ``the devil to pay'' does not refer to the theological ``devil'' but to some nautical term. Can you shed any light on this?
S. B., Skokie, Ill.
We are often told that the expressions ``the devil to pay'' and ``between the devil and the deep (blue) sea'' do not refer to Satan but to a perfectly innocent nautical devil. This ``devil'' is a seam in a ship's hull, on or below the waterline.
``The devil to pay'' is supposed to be a short form of ``the devil to pay and no pitch hot.'' This interpretation depends on a homonym of the verb ``pay'' which means ``to apply pitch.''
Unfortunately for the nautical explanation, both expressions are attested much earlier than is the requisite sense of ``devil.''
We first find ``the devil to pay'' in a poem written about 1500. The couplet, rendered in modern English, goes ``It would be better to stay at home forever than to serve here to please - or pay - the devil.''
We have no evidence for the longer ``the devil to pay and no pitch hot'' until 1828.
``Between the devil and the deep sea'' goes back at least to 1637. Robert Munro, in ``His Expedition with the Worthy Scots Regiment called Mac-Keyes Regiment,'' wrote, ``I, with my partie, did lie on our poste, as betwixt the devill and the deep sea.''
The ``devil'' in a ship's hull, on the other hand, is first reported in William Henry Smyth's ``Sailor's Word-Book: An Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms,'' compiled about 1865. It is true that nautical terms are likely to enjoy a long oral use without being written down. But three and a half - or even two - centuries seems rather too long to be an acceptable assumption for the nautical explanation. It is more likely that this proverbial ``devil'' is the Devil himself.
Where do we get the word ``crack,'' as in ``a crack marksman''? Is it related to the word ``crackerjack''?
G.M., Fairfield, Conn.
The adjective ``crack,'' defined in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, as ``of superior excellence or ability,'' first came into English in the late 1700s, long before ``crackerjack'' or ``crackajack'' arrived on the scene. (That word, a noun meaning ``a person or thing of marked excellence,'' was first seen in print a hundred years later.) The adjective ``crack'' is actually derived from a sense of the noun ``crack.''
If asked to define the noun ``crack,'' most people would come up with such familiar meanings as ``a fissure'' or ``a weakness or flaw.'' The adjective derives instead from an old British slang use in which ``crack'' means ``a thing or person of superior excellence or ability.'' This sense is a play on the verb ``crack up,'' meaning ``to praise.'' We usually use this sense of ``crack up'' in negative constructions, as in ``Riches aren't everything they are cracked up to be.'' (``Crack up,'' in turn, is related to the use of the verb ``crack'' to mean ``to say or utter'' in contexts like ``crack a joke.'')
The complimentary sense of the noun ``crack'' is now rare, but it lives on in the familiar adjective ``crack.''
What does the phrase ``the dog that didn't bark'' mean and where did it come from?
B.N., Fair Lawn, N.J.
``The dog that didn't bark'' describes a nonaction or nonevent that is significant precisely because it ``didn't'' happen.
The phrase comes from a story featuring probably the most famous fictional detective in the world, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. In the story ``Silver Blaze,'' a valuable racehorse is stolen from a stable guarded by a watchdog. Holmes and Dr. Watson have an exchange in which Holmes says that he wishes to draw Watson's attention to ``the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.''
When Watson remarks that ``the dog did nothing in the night-time,'' Holmes replies, ``That was the curious incident.'' In other words, the dog, which should have barked, did not; the thief, therefore, was someone the dog knew.
Appreciate this column? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
06/03/04: 'Surrounded on three sides'; sleuths
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services