“Speak of the devil.”

Marie and I were having a conversation on iChat, which is an instant messaging program. We were talking about a friend of ours and how we had not talked to them in a very, very long time. Suddenly, the friend we were discussing signed online. We both noticed right away and Marie said, “Well, speak of the devil….”

“Speak of the devil” is an abbreviation for “speak of the devil and he shall appear.” Marie learned this English proverb from her parents at a young age. She explained that it is just a reference to someone who appears unexpectedly while being talked about. She uses it when she is talking about someone, and then they just show up out of nowhere. She thinks its meaning is equivalent to “oh, what a coincidence.” She does not think the person who appears unexpectedly while being talked about is a devil at all. She does not think of them in a negative way, she says, “That is just the way the expression goes.” She does not associate a negative connotation with the proverb. She uses it without thinking, and frequently.

In current-day published works, authors use this proverb exactly like Marie does. They use it as a reference to someone appearing unexpectedly while being talked about. In a lot of cases, they do not mean to call the unexpected person an evil devil. They are just remarking that someone has appeared. Page 14 of Married to the Mop illustrates these kinds of cases. In other cases, they are making a joke because the person who appears is someone they do not like, so they do mean it negatively. However, they do not actually think that person is THE devil. Page 109 of Children of the Night exemplifies these other cases.

I agree with Marie about the meaning of the proverb. It is a way of remarking on the coincidence that someone one is talking about suddenly appears. It is an expression of surprise. Marie uses it mostly as an expression of pleasant surprise, but sometimes people do use it as a way to express their unhappiness with the sudden appearance of someone they dislike.

Because I was curious about the origins of the proverb, I looked online. Apparently, before the 20th century, the proverb was not meant lightheartedly at all. The devil’s name was not supposed to be spoken. It was a superstitious belief that it would cause bad luck. People may or may not have believed that if one mentioned the devil’s name he would actually appear ( It is really interesting that the proverb had a more sinister meaning before. One could guess that the proverb did not originally have a playful meaning because it does use the word “devil.”  It is even more interesting that the proverb’s meaning eventually changed. As the times changed, the proverb took on a humorous, playful meaning. I do not think most people think about this when they use the phrase, they just say the phrase because they learned to say it in certain situations.

Annotation: Colley, Barbara. Married to the Mop: A Charlotte LaRue Mystery. New York: Kensington Books, 2006.

Annotation: Lackey, Mercedes. Children of the Night. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1990.