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A gift from the Devil’s grandmother

Posted: Sun Dec 10, 2017 5:22 am
by Ken Greenwald
<2007 “We [[physicists, Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger]] have squandered a lot of time on this, and the result looks like a gift from the devil’s grandmother.”—Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson, page 513>
Einstein and Schrödinger had just completed a mammoth effort of once again trying to unite quantum mechanics and general relativity, which Einstein had tried to do for most of his life. In reviewing his latest results, Einstein wrote to Schrödinger that his results looked like “a gift from the devil’s grandmother.”

Schrödinger wrote back to Einstein, “I have not laughed so much for a long time as over the ‘gift of the devils grandmother.’ For in the preceding sentences you described the way of the cross [[see future posting]] that I also traveled in order to end up with something even more impossible than your result.”

I take this phrase to mean that so intricately convoluted and complex, as intricate as needlework (assuming grandmothers do needlework) from a mad-women, had his work become so as to be somewhat discouraging. However, Einstein never gave up and was unsuccessful in his quest. He soldiered on (but to no avail) because he just couldn’t believe that real physical quantities had to be determined by probabilities as quantum mechanics would have it. To this day no one has figured out how to unite General Relativity with quantum mechanics.

This phrase was never picked up for use by others and so it remains a one-off by Albert Einstein.

Ken Greenwald — December 9, 2017

Re: A gift from the Devil’s grandmother

Posted: Sun Dec 10, 2017 12:52 pm
by tony h
What a lovely post!

In my childhood we had a series of au pairs from Scandinavia and Germany. The Devil's Grandmother appeared in many warnings. The warnings often seemed to have illusions to knitting - the au pairs were invariably knitters - "The Devil's grandmother will catch you in her knitting" or "the Devil's grandmother has got into my knitting".

I don't really remember much of these exchanges so I have tried searching for the Devil's Grandmother in Google Books. There are a few references in Germany and America but not enough text to make much sense of the context.

I imagine that the allusion is that a gift from the Devil's Grandmother is a gift of things to catch you out and trip you up.

Re: A gift from the Devil’s grandmother

Posted: Sun Dec 10, 2017 11:15 pm
by Ken Greenwald
Hi Tony,

Thanks for the compliment and for pointing out that the Devil’s Grandmother is an old phrase in itself. I
probably should have thought of searching for that too, but I’m afraid my search skills are a bit rusty. (>:)

After further looking, here’s a bit more I found on Devil’s Grandmother:


Devil’s grandmother:

For the plant, see Elephantopus tomentosus – a species of perennial flowering plant in the Asteraceae family. It is native to the southeastern United States. It blooms from July to September. Known colloquially as Wooly Elephant’s Foot and Devil’s Grandmother.

The devil’s grandmother is a common figure in Russian folklore, mainly used in curses and as a reason that something has gone wrong, e.g. when a machine breaks down. <As best I can tell, the Devil’s grandmother has set up shop in your engine.> She also shows up in the German fairy tales The Devil and his Grandmother and The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs.

Also occasionally mentioned in less prominent roles are the devil’s other relatives, such as his mother.
<2007 “The Devil’s grandmother is a well-known stock character in German folk tales such as The Devil With the Three Golden hairs which the Grimms included in their famous nineteenth-century collections.”—Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples: The Devil’s Grandmother Fights Napoleon by Waltraud Maierhofer, page 57>

Ken Greenwald — December 10, 2017

Re: A gift from the Devil’s grandmother

Posted: Tue Dec 12, 2017 7:47 pm
by Phil White
I believe that the "Devil's Grandmother" gained wider popularity in Germany after the appearance of the fairy tale "Der Teufel und seine Großmutter" in the collection by the Brothers Grimm. There is a translation here.

Oddly, the grandmother is not an evil figure in the fairy tale, far from it.

The most common context in which you hear the German "des Teufels Großmutter" nowadays is in the expression "aussehen wie des Teufels Großmutter" (to look like the devil's grandmother), which is less than complimentary.

Beyond that, the devil's grandmother sometimes pops up as a reinforcement of any reference to the devil in German cursing and swearing. So the expression "Da ist der Teufel los" (lit. "the devil has been let loose" used much as "all hell has broken loose") is sometimes reinforced as "Da ist der Teufel und seine Großmutter los".

But Einstein's usage is a new one on me. I like it.

Re: A gift from the Devil’s grandmother

Posted: Sat Dec 16, 2017 12:20 am
by tony h
Phil, are you able to confirm whether knitting is a key feature of the Devil's grandmother, in German sources, and what role it might play?

Maybe it was more from the Nordic au-pairs.

PS: we had a plethora of au-pairs as my mother contracted polio before I was born so they became a necessary part of functioning life.

Re: A gift from the Devil’s grandmother

Posted: Sat Dec 16, 2017 1:05 am
by Phil White
No. I don't think it is an aspect of the German at all. It doesn't appear in the fairy tale as related by Grimm, and the only way you hear it nowadays is in the reinforcing sense. That's my experience, at least.