The Devil You Know: Definition, Meaning, and Origin

Last Updated on
July 17, 2023

The phrase "the devil you know" is frequently used in conversations to suggest that it's safer to deal with something familiar, even if it's not perfect than to risk something new and potentially more dangerous. This idiom can be used in various contexts, ranging from personal relationships to professional situations. The phrase subtly implies that the familiar, despite its flaws, is better understood and, therefore, more manageable than the unknown.

In short:

  • The phrase underscores the tendency to prefer the familiar, albeit imperfect, over the unknown.
  • It subtly communicates a cautious approach to changes and the risks that come with them.

What Does "The Devil You Know" Mean?

The full expression is actually "better the devil you know than the devil you don't." It suggests that it is often better to deal with a familiar person or situation (even if they are difficult or unpleasant) than to risk dealing with an unfamiliar person or situation that could turn out to be even worse. In essence, it emphasizes the notion that familiarity provides a degree of comfort, even in unfavorable circumstances.

Key aspects of the idiom's meaning:

  • Refers to a familiar situation or person
  • Implies a preference for the known over the unknown
  • Suggests dealing with a known problem is better than risking a new one
  • Often used to describe a less-than-ideal choice

Where Does "The Devil You Know" Come From?

The phrase is believed to have originated from an old Irish saying, which was later adopted and modified by the English. The earliest recorded usage is found in the 1539 Collection of Proverbs by Richard Taverner, where it appears as: “It is said, better is the devil than the unknown.”

Historical Example

"There is an old saying that it is better to deal with the devil you know than with the devil you do not know."

- Joint Volumes of Papers Presented to the Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly, 1912

10 Examples of "The Devil You Know" in Sentences

Here are ten examples of sentences using this phrase in various contexts:

  • I concur with your decision. It’s better to stick with the devil you know, than to gamble on something new.
  • Many voters, dissatisfied with the government, still voted for the incumbent president – the devil they know.
  • I almost never take risks. I prefer the devil I know to the one I don’t.
  • She decided to stay in the relationship, as dealing with the devil she knew was better.
  • She had a way of attracting trouble. I told her it's better to stick with the devil you know.
  • Our old car is far from perfect, but at least we know what's wrong with it. Better the devil you know.
  • To each their own, I guess. Some people like the devil they know, and some like the devil they don’t.
  • Well, back to the grind. You hate this job, but it’s the devil you know.
  • He cut me in on the deal. He said it was better to have the devil you know as a partner than a stranger.
  • Though the other apartment had more amenities, they chose to renew their current lease. It was the devil they knew.

Examples of "The Devil You Know" in Pop Culture

The idiom "the devil you know" has found its way into pop culture, featuring in movies, songs, and literature.

Here are a few examples:

  • The phrase is used as the title of a song by the rock band Heaven & Hell in their 2009 album "The Devil You Know."
  • "The Devil You Know" is a 211 book by Kerry Daynes and Jessica Fellowes, which tackles the subject of dealing with challenging individuals in our lives, particularly those who exhibit psychopathic or manipulative tendencies.
  • In 2019, a television series named "The Devil You Know" was released on Vice, focusing on the investigation of a satanic cult.
  • James Oakley's 2013 film, "The Devil You Know," stars an amazing cast, including Lena Olin and Jennifer Lawrence. The plot follows the daughter of a former famous actress as she uncovers her mother's mysterious and eerie history.

Other/Different Ways to Say "The Devil You Know"

While "the devil you know" is quite a unique idiom, there are other expressions that convey a similar sentiment of preferring familiarity over uncertainty:

Here are a few examples:

  • Better the devil you recognize
  • Stick to the devil you know
  • Better an old foe than a new friend unknown
  • Better a known danger than an unknown

10 Frequently Asked Questions About "The Devil You Know":

  • What does "the devil you know" mean?

It's an idiom that suggests that it is often better to deal with a known but unfavorable situation than to risk dealing with an unknown, potentially more dangerous one.

  • What is the origin of "the devil you know"?

The phrase is believed to have originated from an old Irish saying, which was later adopted and modified by the English.

  • How can I use "the devil you know" in a sentence?

You can use "the devil you know" in a sentence when expressing the choice to stick with a familiar but imperfect situation rather than venturing into an unknown circumstance. For example, "These are my words to live by: better the devil you know than the devil you don’t."

  • What are some synonyms of "the devil you know"?

While there aren't direct synonyms for this specific idiom, similar expressions include "Better a known danger than an unknown," and "Stick to the evil you know."

  • Is "the devil you know" a negative phrase?

It's not inherently negative, but it does express a cautious, risk-averse attitude. It indicates preference for the familiar, even if it's not ideal, over the unfamiliar and potentially worse.

  • Can "the devil you know" be used in a positive context?

Yes, while it often reflects a less-than-ideal situation, it can be used in a positive light to emphasize the value of familiarity and the comfort it provides.

  • Is it used in formal or informal language?

While it can be used in both contexts, it's more commonly found in informal language or conversational English.

  • Is "the devil you know" used globally?

Yes, while its origins are in Irish and English cultures, the phrase has been adopted and understood in various English-speaking regions around the world.

  • Can "the devil you know" refer to a person?

Yes, the "devil" in the phrase can metaphorically refer to a person, situation, or thing that is known but not ideal.

  • Is it commonly used in modern English?

Yes, "the devil you know" is still a commonly used idiom in modern English.

Final Thoughts About "The Devil You Know"

"The devil you know" is a valuable idiom that illustrates a universal human tendencythe preference for familiarity, even in unfavorable conditions, over the uncertainty of the unknown. It serves as a linguistic testament to our innate aversion to risk and the unknown. This idiom is an accessible, versatile phrase that you can use in various contexts to emphasize the choice of sticking with a known entity over venturing into uncharted territory.

Here's a quick summary:

  • "The devil you know," highlights the choice of a known but unfavorable situation over an unknown, potentially more dangerous one.
  • It is commonly used in informal and conversational language.
  • The phrase can be used in various contexts and can refer to people, situations, or things.
  • It is a universally understood concept that speaks to our innate preference for familiarity.

Understanding the deeper meaning and usage of the phrase will enhance your linguistic skills and offer you a window into understanding the human condition and our collective approach towards uncertainty.

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