I was looking up something else in Brewer’s (“devil’s delight,” which is how one of my dictionaries quaintly translates Russian столпотворение—it wasn’t there, oddly, but Farmer and Henley have it: “Devil’s-Delight. To kick up the devil’s delight, verbal phr. (common). — To make a disturbance”) and ran across the phrase “the devil to pay and no pitch hot,” defined as “There will be serious trouble arising from this,” with the explanation: “The ‘devil’ was the seam between the outboard plank and the waterways of a ship and very awkward of access. It also needed more pitch when caulking and paying, hence ‘the devil’.” This is of course nonsense (the expression “the devil to pay” comes from stories of making a pact with the devil; see this excellent discussion for details), but it led me to the fact that there is a verb pay meaning “To smear or cover (a wooden surface or join, esp. the seams of a ship) with pitch, tar, or other substance, so as to make watertight or resistant to damage,” which comes from Middle French poier (in Old French from Normandy as peier), from Latin picāre ‘to smear with pitch’ (Latin pix ‘pitch’). The latest OED citation is from 1985: Verbatim Summer 9/2 “Oakum is first driven into the seam with a caulking iron.‥ The seam is then sealed by ‘paying’ it—pouring hot pitch over the oakum from a funnel.”


  1. Not related, but this made me remember the phrase of the British Navy knocker uppers circa 1800 getting the next shift up to go to work) — “Here I come with a sharp knife and a clear conscience!” If a man didn’t get right up his hammock would be cut down. (Of course I got this via Patrick O’Brian.) Now I have to go google oakum.

  2. marie-lucie says:

    I had never heard of the verb “poier” or “peier” but the word must be related to Fr “la poix” (now [pwa]), which probably means ‘pitch’, a very strong glue (the word rhymes with “noix” ‘nut’, with silent x which was never pronounced in French).
    There is an adjective “poisseux” ‘(very) sticky’, and the verb “poisser” ‘to be (very) sticky’ (for instance like pine resin). From those derivatives there is the more modern noun “la poisse”, a slang term meaning a ‘very “sticky” situation’.
    It i possible that ‘to pay’ in this meaning comes from an earlier, perhaps unrecorded ‘to pey’, from the “pei” of OF “peier”.

  3. This gives me a radically different understanding of the meaning of “to pay the piper”. Something more along the lines of Woody Allen’s take on “dressed to beat the band”.

  4. Huh. Follet’s “Modern American Usage” cites the nautical usage as the origin of the phrase, and also throws in “caught between the devil and the deep,” suggesting that the “deep” in this case is “part of a sounding line between fathoms.”

  5. I know it has nothing to do with his lexicography, but I haven’t been able to stand Wilson Follett since I read this.

  6. I’ve always heard it as “between the devil and the deep blue sea”, which I would interpret as being poised in mid-air, a fraction of a second away from inevitable disaster. But a lot of people seem to use it more like “out of the frying pan, into the fire” or “andar o Guatemala a Guatapeor” (if I have that right), to be between two unfortunate choices.
    x was never pronounced in French? For example, “roix” comes from Latin “rex”. The x was pronounced in Latin. Was there never a time, going back to the days of Charlemagne, that the x in “roix” was pronounced?

  7. Are you thinking of roi?

  8. In any case, Latin /ks/ (written x) in very early Gallo-Roman became /χs/ (the stop /k/ became a fricative), which then became palatalized to /jŝ/ and then /is/ by Old French, so that Latin laxare became laissier and six became sis. So no, there was no x by the time we can talk about a French language.
    Furthermore, French words come from the Latin accusative, not the nominative, so that OF peiz /peits/ ‘pitch’ comes from Latin picem, not pix, and modern French roi comes from regem, not rex.

  9. There are a few exceptions to the general rule in French that nouns come from Latin accusatives: fils, soeur, peintre, prêtre, traître, the proper names Charles, Yves, Georges, Louis (probably because nominatives were used as vocatives), the nominative/accusative pairs sire/seigneur, gars/garçon, pâtre/pasteur, chantre/chanteur, maire/majeur, and the special case on/homme, which is why on only exists in the nominative.

  10. Furthermore, French words come from the Latin accusative,
    How useful to know.

  11. Crown: True of all the other Romance languages, which lost their nominatives early. Old French kept a two-case system for a few centuries, which is why the survivors above exist at all.

  12. John, Are there any theories about why some European languages dropped their cases while others didn’t?

  13. AJPC: The general answer is the same everywhere: sound-change, especially the loss of some or all final vowels in Romance and Germanic and final -n in Germanic, made the IE case endings indistinguishable in many words, followed by a collapse and restructuring on a new basis. In particular, the change from pitch accent to stress accent (the pitch accent in Norwegian and Swedish is a secondary development) promoted changes in the vowels of all unstressed syllables. Standard German is the most laggard of the lot, primarily because it was frozen in aspic for so many years, not becoming actually spoken until the late 19th and 20th centuries. The Baltic and Slavic languages didn’t have this kind of change (some of them retain the original pitch accent to this day) and so keep their case systems un-restructured. Further to the East, deponent knoweth not.

  14. Thanks for explaining, John!

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