The Devil Take the Hindmost

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 37

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Devil Take the Hindmost

Occasionally, I find out I've been using an idiom incorrectly. Here's this week’s example:

In Japan, the name for the game of tag is onigokko. The characters used to write onigokko are devil and child's play. In other words, when Japanese kids play tag, they're imagining, at some level, that the person who is it is a devil bent on capturing you and turning you into a demon in their stead.

Relatedly, there's an old joke about two people trying to outrun a bear (or tiger, in some versions) but let's re-write it:

Tom and Bob were out hiking in the woods when they came across the Devil. Startled, the two men began running away as fast as they could. The Devil grinned and started after them. Slowly at first, but gaining speed with each step. Tom and Bob increased their speed but it was very clear that the Devil would soon have them. Suddenly, Bob stopped and began pulling on a pair of running shoes.

"What do you think you're doing?" Asked Tom. "Do you think that will help you outrun the Devil?"

"I don't have to outrun the Devil," said Bob. "I only have to outrun you."*

…and may the Devil take the hindmost. If there’s a more literal example of this idiom, then I haven’t found it.

But, the thing is, I had always imagined (and possibly used) this idiom in a more positive light. I had thought it was meant to evoke a carefree image of being unconcerned with possible negative outcomes. You know, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes and that sort of thing. Basically, it made me think of Ace Rimmer:

Smoke me a kipper, boys, I'll be back for breakfast.

The truth is, though, as I learned when looking it up, it's a lot more like the trope from Russian folklore of throwing people - princesses, brides, babies, whomever - to the wolves to save the other people in the sled. I mean, imagine a group of people fleeing from the devil, or maybe even Hell itself, with the devil reaching out to grab the slowest, or last, person, you might start to wonder what you would do to not be last.

Print from Les mystères de la Russie: Tableau politique et morale de l'empire Russe by Frédéric Lacroix, 1864.

Somewhere between these two ideas - the Devil catching the slowest, or last person, and sacrificing others so as to not be caught, lies the modern usage of devil take the hindmost: look out for yourself, because the slowest and weakest won't get any help from the group. That might not be quite as dark as throwing people to the wolves in that you're letting everyone fend for themselves instead of actively sacrificing them to save yourself, but it's not much better. And, of course, neither idea is anywhere close to what I had thought the idiom meant.

I think I had conflated this idiom with another devilish idiom, devil-may-care, which may have been further confounded by listening to pop music.** In this case, Adam and the Ants 1981 hit, Stand and Deliver is to blame: “the devil take your stereo and your record collection.” That line stuck in my head for decades and eventually merged with an alternate version of devil take the hindmost, devil take the rest. Which, again, merged with devil-may-care and now we’ve come full circle on how I came to misunderstand this particular phrase. Which is probably fodder for another article, some other day.


*As I said, this is not my joke, but a very, very old one. I can't find an original source for it, but there are some alternate versions here and here.

**When in doubt, blame pop culture. Trust me.

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Definition:

From MacMillan Dictionary Online:

used for talking about a situation where people do only what is best for themselves and do not care what happens to other people

Origin(s):

From Writing Explained (dot org):

This expression comes from the 1500s. The idea is that if everyone is running away, the devil will capture those who are farthest from the front. Therefore, if someone says this expression, it means that those in the rear of a group are at risk.

It is thought to originate from children’s games like tag, where the one who is left behind is the loser. By the 16th century, the meaning had been transformed to mean selfishness.

From The Phrase Finder:

The line was first recorded in print in Beaumont and Fletcher's tragic/comic play Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding, 1611:

"They run all away, and cry, 'the devil take the hindmost'."

The expression may have known colloquially prior to 1611. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations lists "Every man for himself and the Devil take the hindmost" as an 'early 16th century' proverb, although they provide no evidence to support that assertion.

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Notable Events of 1611:

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All for One

Perhaps the best counterpoint to devil take the hindmost is the motto of the Three Muskateers, which is, as we all know, all for one and one for all! Here are some of my favorite takes on the classic story:

Next time: Not for nothing. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.

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