Between the devil and the deep blue sea

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This article is about the idiom. For other uses, see Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (disambiguation).

"Between the devil and the deep blue sea" is an idiom meaning a dilemma—i.e., to choose between two undesirable situations (equivalent to "between a rock and a hard place").

Possible origins[edit]

The first recorded citation of "the Devil and the deep sea" in print is in Robert Monro's His expedition with the worthy Scots regiment called Mac-keyes, 1637: "I, with my partie, did lie on our poste, as betwixt the devill and the deep sea."

Various nautical origins of the phrase have also been proposed, turning on the relationship of a sailor to a "devil", which was a seam (where two hull planks meet). However, this nautical origin is unlikely because the written citation above predates this use of the term devil by more than 200 years. Theories include its being a reference to a member of the lower deck or crew of a sailing ship in the English Navy. Such sailors were often pressed into service unwillingly. One who was "between the devil and the deep blue sea" would literally be beneath the upper deck (officer territory) and thus a member of the crew. Another possible origin involves the fact that "devil" was a name for the longest seam of a wooden ship,[1] which ran from the bow to the stern. When at sea and the devil had to be caulked, the sailor sat in a bosun's chair to do so. He was suspended between the devil and the sea, a very precarious position, especially when the ship was underway. If sailors fell from a footrope under a yardarm, they would either land on the deck (within the devil plank) or in the water (outside of the devil plank). Either option is likely fatal.

A simpler reading is that both outcomes effectively equal death—either one is in hell, or at the bottom of the sea unable to breathe—choosing between the two is fruitless, since both are unwanted situations.

May also refer to the situation that the Israelites found themselves in, when trapped between the advancing Egyptian army led by Pharaoh and the red sea. The deep blue sea may just point to its depth. It is believed among Christians that Pharaoh represented the devil while Moses represented God.


The album Brainwashed (by George Harrison, released in 2002) contains the song "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" with Harrison accompanying himself on ukulele. The original piece is a song of the thirties composed by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler.

A 1973 song by NRBQ entitled "Hot Biscuits and Sweet Marie" references making an unwanted choice that would lead to a loss in either case.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ According to the International Maritime Dictionary by René de Kerchove, the devil is: (1) The seam in a wooden deck which bounds the waterway. It is so-called from its difficulty of access in caulking. (2) A seam in the planking of a wooden ship on or below the waterline.