This English idiom which sounds extremely literary is not used in everyday spoken English but can often be found in pieces of writing. This article will explore the meaning behind the phrase as well as its origins.
The expression is used in order to denote a difficult choice. This choice is between two things which are equally dangerous and therefore neither choice is desirable. Another English idiom with a very similar meaning is “between a rock and a hard place.”
The expression was first used without the description of the sea as being blue. At the outset it was used simply as “between the Devil and the deep sea,” or sometimes as “between the Devil and the Red Sea.” The first recorded use of this can be dated to the year 1637 in Robert Monro’s His expedition with the worthy Scots regiment called Mac-keyes which reads “I, with my partie, did lie on our poste, as betwixt the devill and the deep sea.”
We have to wait until the year 1931 to find the phrase with the inclusion of the adjective “blue.” This is in the title of a song written by Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen which takes the phrase “between the devil and the deep blue sea” as the title.
There is no consensus regarding the reasons behind this phrase being used. The most simple suggestion is that the devil has always been seen as an evil being and the deep sea is a dangerous entity and therefore being caught between these two things would not be an ideal situation.
An example of the expression in use can be found in a quote from Private W. Hay made during the Great War. He stated “you were between the devil and the deep blue sea. If you go forward, you’ll likely be shot, if you go back you’ll be court-martialled and shot, so what the hell do you do? What can you do? You just go forward because that`s the only bloke you can take your knife in, that`s the bloke you are facing.”