between the devil and the deep blue sea


contemporary etching of troop disposition at the beginning of the Battle of Breitenfeld (1631)

contemporary etching of troop disposition at the beginning of the Battle of Breitenfeld (1631)






in a difficult situation where there are two equally unpleasant choices





The reference to the sea suggests a nautical origin. The use by sailors of devil as a name for a seam is first recorded in The Sailor’s Word-Book (1867 edition), by Admiral William Henry Smyth:

The seam which margins the water-ways was called the “devil,” why only caulkers can tell, who perhaps found it sometimes difficult for their tools.

Unfortunately for this nautical explanation, between the devil and the deep sea is attested in the first half of the 17th century, much earlier than is the requisite nautical sense of devil, and not in the requisite nautical context.

Even granting that nautical phrases are likely to enjoy a long oral use before being written down, a period of over two centuries seems too long for the nautical explanation to be an acceptable assumption. It is more likely that the phrase simply alludes to a choice between the Devil, Satan, a wicked fate, and the sea, escape, albeit with the risk of drowning.

(Similarly, the devil to pay is not of nautical origin.)

The first known instance of between the devil and the deep sea is in a book published in 1637, Monro his expedition with the worthy Scots Regiment (called Mac-Keyes Regiment), by Robert Monro (died 1680), a Scottish soldier who served as lieutenant-colonel in the Swedish army during the Thirty Years War. In the chapter titled The thirteenth Duty discharged at our Royall Leaguer of Werben on the Elve against Generall Tillio his Army, Monro relates the Battle of Breitenfeld, near Leipzig, in 1631:

I was ordained with my Musketiers to remain on our former Poste, his Majestie and the rest of the partie being retired within the Leaguer. Incontinent from our Batteries, our Cannon did play againe within the Leaguer, which continued the whole day, doing great hurt on both sides, where the whole time, I with my partie, did lie on our Poste, as betwixt the Devill and the deepe Sea, for sometimes our owne Cannon would light short, and grase over us, and so did the enemies [= enemies’] also, where we had three shot with the Cannon, till I directed an Officer to our owne Batteries, acquainting them with our hurt, and desiring they should stell [= place] or plant the Cannon higher.

In Idiomatologia Anglo-Latina, sive Dictionarium Idiomaticum Anglo-Latinum (1680 edition), an English-Latin phrase book, the schoolmaster and author William Walker (1623-84) mentioned a variant of the English expression:

Between the Divel and the dead sea. Inter sacrum saxumque.

The Latin phrase inter sacrum saxumque is from Captivi (The Captives), a play by the Roman comic dramatist Titus Maccius Plautus (circa 250-184 BC):

                                                           Nunc ego omnino occidi,
Nunc ego inter sacrum saxumque sto, nec quid faciam scio.
                                                                                   Now am I utterly undone,
Now between the sacrifice and the stone do I stand, nor know I what to do.

The origin of inter sacrum saxumque (que means and) is that, in the most ancient times, the animal for sacrifice (sacrum) was killed by being struck with a stone (saxum); to stand between the victim and the stone would therefore imply being in a position of extreme danger.

The form with blue seems to have appeared in the second half of the 19th century. For instance, Diary of Civil War, by Dr. B. H. W. – 1862, contains the following:

Nov. 4th.—To-day elections are held in New York and some eight other States north. Between the Democrats and Abolitionists at the North is as between the Devil and the deep blue sea—that is, one is about as bad as the other; for the Democrats even wish to force us back into the Union.





The equivalent of between the devil and the deep blue sea is entre le marteau et l’enclume, between the sledgehammer and the anvil.

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