Did someone say to you, 'The devil is in the details,’ and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.
The idiom ‘the devil is in the details’ means:
It is a warning to remember to pay attention to every aspect, no matter how small, of something you’re working on.
‘The devil is in the details’ is an idiom that indicates the importance of paying attention to the smallest aspects of a task, project, or plan.
Let’s say that your friend has a business idea they are very excited about.
You might respond with the phrase: ‘the devil is in the details’ to remind them that things can be much more complicated once you get into the nitty gritty of any project, task, or idea.
The phrase ‘the devil is in the details’ actually comes from an earlier phrase:
‘God is in the details.”
This latter quote expresses that every task a person engages in should be done thoroughly– the details of everything one does are important.
A number of different people have been described as the originators of the phrase ‘God is in the details.’
The most notable individual this quote has been attributed to is Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a German-born architect. This attribution is found in the 1969 obituary for Mies published in The New York Times.
There is a German version of the phrase:
'Der liebe Gott steckt im Detail'
This quote is commonly attributed to Aby Warburg, a German art historian.
There is also a French version of the idiom:
This French version is usually attributed to Gustave Flaubert.
According to Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, the original author of the quote is unknown.
In 1989, a New York Times editorial discussed the difficulty of figuring out whether ‘God is in the details’ or ‘the devil is in the details’ came first and when both idioms first originated.
The word ‘devil’ comes from an Old English word that means:
Additionally, the word devil in Christian theology refers to:
The Old English and Christian theological words come from the Late Latin word diabolus, which is also the source of words in Spanish, French, German, and more.
The Late Latin word diabolus comes from the Ecclesiastical Greek word diabolos. In general use, this word meant “slanderer, the accuser.”
The noun ‘detail’ dates back to around the year 1600, meaning:
Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that 'the devil is in the details’ doesn’t start showing up in publications until about the 1980s. ‘God is in the details’ hardly registers on the graph, while ‘devil is in the detail’ is less common than ‘devil is in the details.’
In 1979, the phrase appeared in the Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Energy Research and Production of the Committee on Science and Technology before the U.S. House of Representatives:
“This has become a tenet of our modern society, but it is as valid as the once widely held precept that the world is flat. Properly running a sophisticated technical program requires a fundamental understanding of and commitment to the technical aspects of the job and a willingness to pay infinite attention to the technical details. I might add, infinite personal attention. This can only be done by one who understand the details and their implications. The phrase, “The devil is in the details” is especially true for technical work. If you ignore those details and attempt to rely on management techniques or gimmicks you will surely end up with a system that is unmanagable, and problems will be immensely more difficult to solve.”
We find an example of this phrase in the 1986 case studies and interpretations published by the Center for the Study of Foreign Affairs “Perspectives on Negotiations”:
“However, in Cyprus the problem is not necessarily getting everyone to agree ot the principles of an outcome. The problem is more to devise a step-by-step process to arrive at the solution and to work out the details of the arrangement. There is an old expression, “The devil is in the details.” On Cyprus, the devil is in getting there as well as in the details themselves.”
Here’s one more example from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1994:
“But, as we all know, the devil is in the details. And in this case, the devil could produce a series of torments for those involved in returning a site to background.”
How would 'The Devil Is In the Details' be used in a sentence? Let’s take a look at some examples:
‘The devil is in the details’ is an idiom that reminds us not to forget about the smallest details of a task, project, or plan.
Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!
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