What does "Speak of the Devil" Mean?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

The idiom speak of the Devil generally refers to the sudden and presumably unexpected appearance of the object of discussion. If two co-workers are discussing the need for a meeting with their boss and the boss suddenly appears, one might utter this phrase. Other encounters with the subject of a discussion may not be quite as fortunate or welcome.

"Speak of the devil" might be said to discreetly end a gossip session.
"Speak of the devil" might be said to discreetly end a gossip session.

The basic premise of the idiom can be traced back to ancient folklore concerning the true identity of Satan, or the Devil. Many cultures believed the Devil's true name should never be spoken aloud, since he or one of his imps were bound to overhear and punish the speaker. Therefore, a number of nicknames and allusions to Satan appeared over the centuries, including "Old Scratch," "Prince of Darkness," and "The Evil One." Mentioning Satan's actual name in conversation was considered an invitation for evil spirits.

Many cultures believed the devil's true name should not be spoken aloud.
Many cultures believed the devil's true name should not be spoken aloud.

Some believe the entire idiom is "Speak of the Devil and he shall appear" or "Speak of the Devil and his imps shall appear." An old English proverb suggested that speaking of the Devil would make him appear at your elbow. There is some evidence which indicates the original idiom was closer to "Talk of the Devil and he shall appear," which may be a warning not to hold entire conversations about the Evil One.

Over the years, the spiritual significance of the idiom has largely faded away. The phrase is often uttered flippantly as the subject of the conversation makes his or her unexpected appearance. There is rarely any malice intended, just an acknowledgment the person really was being discussed. Sometimes both parties understand such a surprise appearance isn't out of the realm of possibility. The timing of the conversation just happened to coincide with the appearance of the person being discussed.

Sometimes, the phrase is used as social code to end a gossip session or critical discussion. If two co-workers are discussing a tyrannical boss at a company party, for instance, one might spot the employer in question and quietly utter "speak of the devil" as a signal to end the spleen venting and change the topic.

It is important to use this idiom judiciously, because it does acknowledge the fact that a third party was indeed the subject of a conversation, good or bad. When used properly, the subject of the discussion should not feel unwelcomed to the conversation. The phrase is generally used as a lighthearted acknowledgment of a coincidental appearance, nothing more.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments



I think that there is real spiritual activity in the world, but should we turn it into a device of fear and paranoia? In avoiding even speaking of the Devil, medieval Christians were trying to be in denial. This is not healthy, even from a modern Christian standpoint.



I think you make a fuzzy distinction here and seem to be suggesting that the Devil is imaginary. I think that is exactly what he wants you to think. The Devil wants people to stop believing in him so he can continue his work of rebellion in the world.


People used to be terrified of "Satan." Mothers would use him to get kids to quiet down and go to sleep. Even today, monsters such as the Chupacabra are used in places like Dominican Republic to get the kids to sleep. How terrible! Imagine being a poor little kid and having your parents, whom you trust, tell you that there are monsters outside that want to eat you. That could ruin a little kid's life.


I try to make sure that I am smiling whenever I use this idiom, so as not to make the subject feel unwelcome or slandered. When I find out that people are speaking mean things about me behind my back, I am quite saddened by it, and I know that some people are prone to become very angry when they hear that they are being gossiped about. It is also helpful to be aware that certain people do not like to be referenced in terms of "the devil" and therefore this phrase can offend them.

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