dance with the devil you know / better the devil you know

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dance with the devil you know / better the devil you know

Post by Ken Greenwald » Thu Oct 01, 2009 7:20 am

I read the following in last weeks issue of Time:
<2009 “We are having a dozen simultaneous conversations right now about change: in our institutions, our culture, our treatment of the planet and of one another. It's tempting to just stand stock-still and squeeze your eyes shut and wait for the moment to pass, or else hoard canned goods and assume the worst. This has been an awfully ugly summer of argument, and you'd be forgiven for concluding that we've lost our will to face or fix anything. We'll just dance with the devils we know, thank you.”—Time Magazine, 21 September>
The above lovely expression DANCE WITH THE DEVIL WE KNOW, which packs a whole lot of meaning into a very few words, is an abbreviation of DANCE WITH THE DEVIL WE KNOW RATHER THAN THE DEVIL WE DON’T. The basic idea for the phrase first appeared in print in English in the 1500s and over the centuries there have appeared many variations. The version containing the words DANCE WITH THE DEVIL, as far as I could determine, is very recent (see 1996 quote below). An earlier and somewhat more widely used versions is DEAL WITH THE DEVIL, which dates from the late 19th century (see 1899 quote). But the form in which the phrase is most often heard (by a huge margin) is the following, which first appeared in print in the work of the English novelist Anthony Trollope (see 1857 quote below):

BETTER THE DEVIL YOU KNOW THAN THE DEVIL YOU DON’T KNOW: It is often preferable to choose or stay with people or things you know, despite their faults, than to risk replacing them with somebody or something new but possibly less desirable. It is better to deal with something bad you know than with something new you don’t; the new thing might be even worse. The earliest form of the expression has been traced back to a collection of Greek and Latin adages titled Adagia collected and annotated and written in Latin by Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1466?–1536). What began as a collection of about 800 adages/proverbs in his first edition in 1500, expanded to over 4600 over the course of his life. (Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs, Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, Wordsworth Dictionary of Proverbs, Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings, Allen's Dictionary of English Phrases):
<1539 “Nota res mala, optima. An euyl thynge knowen is best.” [[with the annotation] “It is good keypng of a shrew that a man knoweth.”—Proverbs or Adages of Erasmus, translation of Adagia by R. Taverner, page 48>

<1576 “You had rather keepe those whom you know, though with some faultes, than take those whom you knowe not, perchaunce with moe faultes,”—Petit Palace by G. Pettie, page 84>

<1586 “The old pouerbe: Better is the euill known, than the good which is yet to knowe.”—The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities, a Spanish novella published anonymously and translated by D. Rowland, H6V>

Below, starting with Trollope’s 1857 BETTER THE DEVIL YOU KNOW THAN THE DEVIL YOU DON’T, which is often clipped to just BETTER THE DEVIL YOU KNOW (see 1977 quote) are quotes for several versions including: BETTER TO DEAL WITH THE DEVIL YOU KNOW THAN WITH THE DEVIL YOU DON’T KNOW (see 1899 quote) and often clipped to BETTER TO DEAL WITH THE DEVIL YOU KNOW (see 1988 quote); BETTER TO DANCE WITH THE DEVIL YOU KNOW THAN THE DEVIL YOU DON’T (see 1999 quote) and often clipped to BETTER TO DANCE WITH THE DEVIL YOU KNOW (see 1996 quote) and often further clipped to DANCE WITH THE DEVIL YOU KNOW (see 2002 quote)
<1857 “‘Better the d— you know than the d— you don’t know,’ is an old saying. . . but the bishop had not yet realised the truth of it.”—Barchester Towers by Trollope, II. vii

<1874 “Now Mr. Bates was always complaining of his horse, and yet was allowed to choose any on the run for his own use. ‘If you don’t like him, why don’t you take another?’ ‘There ain’t much difference in ‘em . . . Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”—The Living Age, Vol. 120, Issue 1547, 31 January, page 274>

<1899 “. . . a work which would only temporarily alleviate an existing evil, and produce a recurrence of it in an aggravated form a few years hence. An old adage says, It is better to deal with the devil you know than with the devil you don’t know,’ and it applies strongly to the present case.”— Wanganui Chronicle (New Zealand), 4 February, page 2>

<1901 “. . . a good many Wellingtonians voted against the unimproved values on the old policy ‘Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t know.’”—New Zealand Free Lance (Wellington), Volume II, Issue 73, 23 November, page 22>

<1938 “. . . he urged the electors to be guided by the wisdom of continuing their support of an Administration which had done so much for the State. ‘Better the devil you know,’ he added amid laughter, ‘than the devil you don’t know.’”—Sydney Morning Herald (Australia),14 March, page 5>

<1977 “Hennessy said to block her out. Who? Absolutely not. Never Marilee, you hear? Let it be Buffie then, better the devil we know.”—Full Disclosure by William Safire, page 412>

<1988 “Lisa asked Avery, ‘Why aren’t they booting you? You’re the one who pulled a gun on Borov.’ ‘Well,’ Avery replied, it’s the KGB who wants me around, on the theory that it’s better to deal with the devil you know.’”—The Charm School by N. DeMille, page 230>

<1996 “A bid of 1NT or 2NT is possible, but it’s better to dance with the devil you know.”—New Mexican (Santa Fe), 30 November, page 22)> [[the card game, bridge]]

<1999 “An old expression advises us that sometimes it is better to dance with the devil you know than the one you don't.”—Boca Raton News (Florida), 23 April, page 7>

<2002 “With deference to the fact I preach risk avoidance, thus makes more sense to dance with the devil you know (Sweeney) as opposed to the devil you don’t know (Ibanez), I am going to make one of those gut decisions and recommend riding Ibanez.”—Sports Illustrated, 19 August>

<2003 “The saying that it is better to deal with the devil you know rather than the one you don't is probably the reason Israel has kept Arafat alive this long.”—Boca Raton News (Florida), 14 September, page 22>

<2004 “‘Have you ever asked yourself why the Orlocks went along with your father in the first place?’ ‘Obviously, because they wanted a country of their own . . . As long as we keep them confined, they’re controllable. It’s better to dance with the devil you know than the one you don’t.’”—The Ancient Legacy‎ by M. Graham, page 98>

<2005 “Our ‘don't knows’ plump for the devil they know: . . . ‘Better the devil you know, is the view of several present. . . . 'Tony Blair looks the part, whereas the other geezers don't.’”—The Observer (U.K.), 1 May>

<2006 “The election does speak volumes. However, it tells myself and others that the townspeople didn't want a major builder in office, rather than a mandate for a $70,000 a year town manager. It tells me it's easier to dance with the devil you know than the devil you don't.”—The Landmark (Holden, Paxton, Princeton, Rutland, Sterling, Massachusetts), 18 May>

<2007 “It’s risky to switch brands when you don’t know anything about the alternatives—as they say, ‘It’s better to dance with the devil you know than the one you don’t..’ Consumers are more likely to stay with a brand, even one that has disappointed them in the past, if they have no way of knowing if the alternatives might be even worse.”—Satisfaction: How Every Great Company Listens to the Voice of the Customer by Denove & Power, page 23>‎

<2008 “It is interesting that all his [[actor Roger Moore]] wives resisted divorce. ‘That's true.’ Why is that? ‘I guess they thought, ‘Better the devil you know.’”—Scotland on Sunday (Edinburgh), 19 October>

<2009 “GM workers hesitate to bite at buyout bait: . . . Curtiss, president of Envisioning Financial, said that given the cost of health insurance, he wouldn't blame GM workers for passing up the buyout. ‘If you don't have the ability to cover that health insurance issue through a spouse, or through another avenue, you might just want to dance with the devil you know,’ he said. Indianapolis Business Journal (Indiana), 16 February>

<2009 “It is a case, he [[Gordon Brown]] hopes, of the dwindling electorate, thinking ‘better the devil you know...’ That may well be the wishful thinking of a deluded leader sheltering in a concrete bunker, given that this week's opinion polls put Labour on 27%, and voters are increasingly joining the ‘anyone but Brown’ camp.”—Liverpool Echo (England), 18 September>
(quotes from books of proverbs noted above and archived sources)

Ken G – September 30, 2009

Re: The Devil is in the details
Posted on: 01 Oct 2009 00:14
My least favourite devil-related expression is that horribly over-used, but regrettably under-synonymized, expression, "The devil is in the detail", which is used in order to imply that agreeing on the principles of some compromise or proposal is much less problematic than settling the small details of which it is comprised.


[Note: Further discussion of ‘the Devil is in the details’ has been moved to the posting surprisingly titled The Devil is in the details].

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