Speak the truth and shame the devil

Knight, Death, and the Devil by Albrecht Dürer

Southerners “believe more in the reality of Satan than in the reality of God.”* These words were written by Episcopal bishop of Arkansas Robert R. Brown. Having spent more than one Sunday on a hard pew listening to a red-faced, sweating preacher warning of hellfire and brimstone from the pulpit, I tend to agree.

So what better day than this Sunday, Nov. 13 (an unlucky number anyway — remember that 13th person at the Last Supper?), to talk about idioms that have to do with the devil.

Speak the truth and shame the devil. Tell the truth even when you don’t want to. Why? Because the Devil wants you to lie like a rug. By being honest, you shame the devil because he has no influence over you. Shakespeare used this one in Henry IV:

And I can teach thee, coz, to shame the devil
By telling truth. Tell truth and shame the devil.
If thou have power to raise him, bring him hither,
And I’ll be sworn I have power to shame him hence.
O, while you live, tell truth and shame the devil!

Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. I always assumed that this saying was just another version of being “between a rock and a hard place” — you have to choose between two things, neither of which is acceptable. A little research, however, revealed an interesting twist. There is a seam that runs from the bow of a wooden ship to the stern called “the devil,’ and this seam must be caulked. To do so, a sailor is precariously suspended above the seam, literally between the devil and the deep blue sea, where a fall either landing on the deck or in the ocean might likely prove fatal.

The devil made me do it. A popular excuse for bad behavior made by children and adults alike, this one is pretty much self-explanatory. What better way to avoid personal responsibility than to blame an invisible symbol of temptation and evil?

Speak of the devil. Usually used in reference to the sudden appearance of someone you’ve just been talking about (likely badmouthing), this saying hearkens back to the old-timey believe that if you invoke evil or the devil, it will appear. And I’m here to tell you, this one is as true as the day is long. Maybe the lesson here is to keep your big mouth shut.

The devil’s beating his wife with a frying pan. This phrase is used to describe a sunshower — a period of rain while the sun is shining. Why? Who the hell knows! I can’t find a thing in the world about it except that it’s a fun thing to say. Maybe the wife is trying to bring some light into the devil’s dark life and he flat doesn’t like it.

Here’s a final southern term: prayer bones. And that’s what I need to get down on after all this talk of the devil. On this Sunday.

* The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 1: Religion, 91.