‘The Devil Is In The Details’: Definition, Meaning and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on April 10, 2023

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:

  • Complications and difficulties are often found in the details of a plan, project, idea, or task.

It is a warning to remember to pay attention to every aspect, no matter how small, of something you’re working on.

What Does 'The Devil Is In the Details' Mean?

‘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.

  • It implies that even something that seems incredibly simple can have complications in the details if you don’t pay attention to them.
  • This phrase is a warning that points out the fact that even things that seem easy and straightforward can have difficult or unworkable factors hiding in the smallest elements.

For example:

Let’s say that your friend has a business idea they are very excited about.

  • They are convinced that it will be easy to start the business and take very little capital, even expressing surprise that no one else has come up with such a simple concept.

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.

Where Does 'The Devil Is In the Details' Come From?

The phrasethe 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.

Origin of the Idiom 'The Devil Is in the Details'

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.

  • However, many experts agree he was not the individual that originated this phrase.

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:

  • 'Le bon Dieu est dans le detail,' which translates literally to ‘the good God is in the detail.”

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’ orthe devil is in the details’ came first and when both idioms first originated.

Origin of ‘Devil’ and ‘Details’

The word ‘devil’ comes from an Old English word that means:

  • A subordinate evil spirit afflicting humans

Additionally, the word devil in Christian theology refers to:

  • A powerful spirit of evil, otherwise known as Satan

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:

  •  Attention to particulars

Examples of ‘The Devil Is In the Details’ in Print

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.”

Examples of 'The Devil Is In the Details' In Sentences

How would 'The Devil Is In the Details' be used in a sentence? Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • “Please bear with me– I know this seems simple, but, as always, the devil is in the details. We need to make sure we do this right the first time.”
  • Traveling well is more complicated than you might think. Sure, you just need a plane ticket and a hotel, but the truth is the devil is in the details.”
  • “It seems like everyone these days is buying into these get-rich-quick schemes. I tried to tell Timmy that the devil is in the details when he brought up his latest money-making ploy, but he won’t listen.”
  • In regard to your idea to bring in more customers, I want to remind you that the devil is in the details. This is a great concept in theory, but it could very easily backfire if we don’t execute it in the proper way.”
  • “I think we’ve learned an important lesson from this mishap to apply moving forwardthe devil is always in the details. In some ways, this has been a huge blow, but it won’t all be for nothing if we are able to apply this wisdom in the future.”

Final Thoughts About 'The Devil Is In the Details'

‘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.

  • It implies that there’s often a catch hidden in the smallest elements of something or mysterious components found in the details.
  • Even when something seems as though it is very simple, the details can be much more complicated and even lead to issues and problems.

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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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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