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Friday, 20 November 2015

The devil's limitations

The devil, Old Nick, has many names. The first comes from an Old English term, déofol, which has a clear link to the Greek diabolos (which we run into most often in the form of 'diabolical', or in advocatus diaboli, discussed below). So it is little wonder we call the devil in his Satanic form "Old Nick" — quite clearly he has been around for a very long time as a doer of evil.

There is just one caveat here: the word for devil is common right across the Indo-European languages, which means devils were around long before Christianity took hold in Europe, so what was a devil originally? We may get a hint from the German word waldteufel, a wood-devil who is no more than a woodsprite. Devils, it seems, were originally just slightly malignant supernatural creatures who came to carry all of the emotional baggage assigned to Satan in the Bible, from the Garden of Eden onwards.

Yet some forms of devil, like the printer's devil, who is no more than an errand-boy, are comparatively harmless, the equivalent of what we would call a gopher today. Unless you have a taste for cheap jokes about lawyers, you would probably accept that somebody who devils for a lawyer, is fairly harmless as well. The story goes that lawyers would drink at a pub called the Devil's Head, and 'devilled' to earn what they needed to pay for drink.

It is easy to understand why a machine with sharp teeth is called a devil, or why highly seasoned foods and fireworks are called 'devils', but the devil on a ship is the seam which lies on the waterline of a ship (most commonly heard of in 'between the devil and the deep blue sea').

It is this devil plank, by the way, which is intended in the expression 'the devil to pay', according to another charming but probably erroneous etymology, which has 'paying the devil' as the act of caulking the seams on that plank. I think it may be erroneous, because there is a similar expression in French, and an opera of that name was performed as far back as the 1730s, when nautical terms were uncommon in everyday English.

Most things related to the name of the devil are bad news, or can be seen as such. Jonathan Swift called playing cards "the devil's book" — perhaps after a losing streak, but the devil's advocate, or advocatus diaboli, is on the side of the goodies. While the office is commonly misconstrued, the true role of a devil's advocate is not to argue an evil case, but to see the other side of the picture when the case is being assembled for somebody to be named a saint.

Even though printing shops have traditionally been called chapels, they are a home for printers' devils, who are boys that work in print shops. This particular devilish variant seems to have got his name from the ink that they became covered in, or perhaps the name came originally from Aldus Manutius, the famous Venetian printer who founded the Aldine Press, who was accused of having a real devil on his premises because he owned a black slave.

Aldus responded to claims that he was harbouring the devil by advertising that his 'devil' was flesh and blood, and that anybody who wished could come and pinch him. We have no record, however, of what the 'devil' thought of this generous offer.

For all that the idea of the devil is widespread, we know little enough about him — or most of us remain ignorant, and a little fearful of the devil's powers, but not Georges Cuvier, whom Aldus would have loved because Cuvier fought for freedom of the press, but today, he is recalled for his zoological skills, which he once applied to define the devil.

The famous biologist was an expert with fossils, and he liked to boast that, given a single bone, he could argue his way to a logical description of the whole animal. According to legend, Cuvier was visited one night by a joker, disguised as the devil. "Cuvier", roared the prankster as he burst in, "I've come to eat you up!"

Cuvier, was reading in bed, and he looked up calmly to consider the figure. "You have horns", he declared, "and a tail, and a cloven hoof, so you're herbivorous, and you can't!". Then he returned his attentions to his book.

Be assured, though, the devil is busy still, or so conservatives would have us believe. Once, the railway was the work of the devil, then it was electricity, heavier-than-air flight, space exploration or rock music. Now the latest alleged work of the devil is genetic manipulation, or perhaps the Internet. Isn't it odd how the devil, for all his powers, never gets ahead of the technology of humans, but just keeps pace with the latest advances?

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