The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 25 (1000×300)

It's rare that I can pinpoint exactly when I heard a given idiom, but in this case, I know exactly where I first read it: It was in one of the A.I. Gang books, a series where a bunch of young, know-it-all kids accompany their genius parents to a private island where their goal is to create a new supercomputer. I loved these books. Must have read them at least a dozen times each...but, in one scene, one young hero is caught underwater with a deadly shark circling between himself and the surface. The boy thinks, "he had heard of being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, but this was ridiculous!"

Here's the thing: because of where I first read it, the image it has always brought to my mind is that of the circling shark. And I know I'm not the only one, or else the (fantastically bad but still fantastic) 1999 movie about intelligent sharks gone rogue Deep Blue Sea would not have that title.

It's interesting that, almost in opposite of last week's blood, sweat, and tears, devil and the deep blue sea can have a whole host of images associated with it depending on one's personal definition of devil. After all, the dictionary gives us a definition that mentions nothing of sharks: between equally undesirable alternatives.

So, which devil, exactly, are we talking about? No one knows. In their write-up, Phrase Finder mentions a possible nautical origin to the phrase, defining devil as "the seam between the deck planking and the topmost plank of the ship's side" and going on to say that, "This seam would need to be watertight and would need filling (caulking) from time to time. On a ship at sea this would presumably require a sailor to be suspended over the side, or at least to stand at the very edge of the deck" literally putting the sailor between the devil (seam) and the deep blue sea. Makes sense.

Unfortunately, while plausible, it's also speculative as there is very little evidence to suggest that that is the origin of the phrase. What is more certain, as also stated by Phrase Finder, is that the first use in print is in Robert Monro's His Expedition with the Worthy Scots Regiment Called Mac-keyes, published in1637:

I, with my partie, did lie on our poste, as betwixt the devill and the deep sea.

Of course, the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon is a thing that we're all susceptible to, and once I knew the phrase, I started seeing it everywhere, but I couldn't shake the association with sharks. Until I started reading about the other oceanic devils: Leviathan, Moby Dick, the Kraken. And, it was finally in 2013, when reading Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea - the story of the whaling ship Essex and how it was sunk by a whale, thus providing a young Herman Melville with his inspiration - that the image changed. Now, I think of the poster from the movie version:

There's no way, in real life, that a whale would be that big. Even the great blue whales would only be half as long. However. That's a hell of an image. I love the ocean. I love diving and swimming and hanging out in the water. But there are devils there, too. (1000×100)

Slight change of format here:

Instead of re-iterating what I just said in the main section, here is an origin for one of the most popular takes on the phrase “caught between the devil and the deep blue sea” in modern times:


"Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" is an American popular song published in 1931, with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Ted Koehler, and first recorded by Cab Calloway in 1931. It was introduced in the 1931 Cotton Club show Rhythmania and is now a widely recorded standard.

And a cover from George Harrison’s final record: (1000×100)

Notable Events of the Year 1637

You’re reading Learned, a weekly newsletter about words and language, written by me, Joel Neff. If you like what you see, please consider subscribing:

More information can be found on the About page, or by contacting me through emailtwitter, orinstagram. Thank you for reading. (1000×100)


Above, I mentioned the movie Deep Blue Sea. It's not a great movie, but I love it anyway. Mainly because I'm a sucker for shark movies (Sharknado and all its sequels notwithstanding.) The thing is, I love sharks. I think they're fascinating and I love hanging out in aquariums and observing them. But, thanks to our (humanity) obsession with them and given that we share a food supply with them, we are threatening them the world over through overfishing, by-catch, and sheer ignorance.

If you're at all curious about sharks and wish to learn more about them and their habitat, here are a couple of Instagram links to follow:

  • Ocean Ramsey is a marine biologist, diver, and activist who has spent her entire life in the ocean, studying and befriending sharks. Her Instagram account is filled with videos and photos that are, literally, awesome.

  • Michael Muller is a photographer who made his name with incredible portraits but he is also an avid diver and his book, Sharks, is one of my favorite photo books ever assembled.

  • Thomas Peschak is a National Geographic photographer and occasionally posts some amazing shark photos that he’s taken during the course of his work.

But, to end on a happier note, it is possible to get caught between two, other, titanic, opposing forces; I don't think I've ever seen the movie Arthur. But, somehow, I know the theme song to it. Here's an interesting excerpt from one of the song's four writers, from her autobiography. And here's the YouTube clip, just because:

Next time: Get thee behind me, Satan. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.