Speak of the Devil—From Phrase to Folklore

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Alison Page

Alison has worked full-time in the writing industry for over ten years, using her knowledge and life experience to create online content, fiction and non-fiction. Alison has published two novels and has ghost-written several non-fiction equestrian books for a client. Alison has been a full-time professional content writer for almost ten years and loves her work as a wordsmith.

Speak of the devil is an idiom used when someone appears unexpectedly after being mentioned in conversation.

Idioms such speak of the devil are sayings or expressions that have meanings beyond their literal interpretations. They add color, depth, and imagery to the English language, allowing speakers to creatively convey ideas. Understanding idioms is essential for effective communication, as they provide nuanced ways to express complex concepts and emotions.

In this article, I explain the idiom’s meaning, reveal its intriguing origin, provide tips for effective usage, and show examples of its use in popular culture. When you finish reading, you’ll understand when to use this slightly creepy phrase in your prose seamlessly and with a smile. Round off your linguistic journey by testing your newfound knowledge with a fun quiz at the end!

Speak of the Devil—From Phrase to Folklore

What Does the Idiom Speak of the Devil Mean?

The idiom speak of the devil is used when a person coincidentally arrives who has just been the subject of conversation. The idiom is actually a shortened version of the phrase: speak of the Devil, and he will appear.

According to Merriam-Webster, the phrase is “used in speech to say that someone one has been talking about has unexpectedly appeared.” Moreover, the Cambridge Dictionary defines speak/talk of the devil as “something you say when the person you were talking about appears unexpectedly.”

This idiom is more suitable for use in informal situations rather than in business or academia, and it’s often said with humorous overtones. 

The other day, over coffee, a friend and I were discussing our former boss, whom we both detested. Imagine our horror when the guy appeared from out of nowhere and sat at the table next to us! “Speak of the devil!” I whispered to my giggling companion.

Literal Meaning vs. Figurative Meaning

The literal meaning of speak of the devil is to discuss the devil during conversation. For example, you might discuss the existence or not of the devil during religious studies classes in college.

Figuratively, to speak or talk of the devil is a phrase you use when someone you’ve just mentioned in a conversation appears unexpectedly.

Variations of the Idiom

Variations are different forms of the idiom that mean the same. I like to use these options to keep my prose engaging and interesting since too many repetitions of the original phrase can make your language sound stale.

Here are a few variants of the idiom speak of the devil:

  • Talk of the devil
  • Speak about the devil

How Is the Idiom Speak of the Devil Commonly Used in Context?

Exploring the multifaceted usage of the idiom speak of the devil sheds light on its versatility and significance in everyday language. In the following sections, we delve into various contexts where this expression is employed, offering insights into its effective usage, tips for application, and avenues to discover real-world examples.

What Are the Different Ways to Use the Idiom Speak of the Devil?

  • When someone appears just as you are talking about them: Used to acknowledge the ironic timing of a person arriving at the moment they are being discussed. “We were just talking about your project, and speak of the devil, here you are!”
  • To introduce someone who has been the topic of conversation: Used as a lighthearted way to introduce a person who was just being discussed. “Speak of the devil, here’s the star athlete we were just praising.”
  • To express surprise at someone’s appearance: Used when someone shows up unexpectedly while being talked about. “I was telling John about our high school memories, and speak of the devil, there’s our old classmate, Lucy!”

What Are Some Tips for Using the Idiom Speak of the Devil Effectively?

  • Timing is key: It’s essential to get your timing correct when using this idiom. Use the saying immediately when the person you’re referring to enters the room for maximum effect.
  • Lighthearted use: This phrase is typically used in a casual, lighthearted, or joking way to acknowledge someone’s coincidental appearance without making it awkward.
  • Use informally: This idiom is generally considered more suitable for informal situations rather than professional or formal settings.
  • Audience awareness: Be aware that those who don’t speak English fluently might not understand your meaning, and be ready to explain if necessary. 
  • Embrace coincidence: Using this idiom can turn a potentially surprising moment into a positive and enjoyable one. Make your facial expression, body language, and tone of voice reflect your pleasure in seeing someone.

Where Can You Find Examples of the Idiom Speak of the Devil?

Speak of the devil is a very old idiom that you still hear used in conversation today. It is typically featured in popular media, including TV, movies, websites, newspapers, and public speeches.

Here are a few examples to illustrate the idiom’s use in news outlets:

“Speaking of the devil,” quarterbacks coach Tim Lester said. “We were just talking about you.” (The Post-Standard)

BBC host Mark Carwardine couldn’t help but laugh when one of the magnificent creatures showed up just as he was explaining to viewers how tricky it can be to spot one in the wild. (The Huffington Post)

What Is the Origin of the Idiom Speak of the Devil?

speak of the devil Ngram
Speak of the devil usage trend.

This expression speak of the devil appeared in England during the Middle Ages as an admonition against the danger of uttering the name of the Devil, Satan, or Lucifer. The fear of acknowledging evil by name may be seen today in the Harry Potter series, where only the bravest characters will call Voldemort by his name.

Talk of the devil is sometimes used instead of speak of the devil, from two phrases popular in the 1600s: Talk of the Devil and he’s presently at your elbow, and Talk of the Devil and see his horns.

How Did the Idiom Evolve Over Time?

While speak of the devil began as a superstitious warning, today, it is a comment on the coincidence of speaking about something or someone and then suddenly finding it at your elbow.

What Are Some Related Terms to Speak of the Devil?

Understanding idioms often involves exploring related terms to broaden comprehension. In this section, we’ll uncover synonyms, antonyms, and other related expressions that shed further light on the nuances of speak of the devil and its usage in various contexts.

Speak of the Devil—From Phrase to Folklore 1


  • Talk of the devil
  • Mention the devil
  • Invoke the devil
  • Bring up the devil


  • Speak of an angel
  • Mention an angel
  • Refer to an angel

Speak of the Devil: Test Your Knowledge!

Choose the correct answer.

What Have We Learned about the Idiom Speak of the Devil?

The idiom speak of the devil is used to refer to someone who suddenly and unexpectedly appears in conversation.

This old idiom first appeared in England during the Middle Ages as a warning against mentioning the name of Lucifer, Satan, or the Devil. However, over the years, the phrase has typically come to be used positively and jokingly, intimating that a person’s appearance is a pleasant surprise and is in no way sinister.

I’ve explained the idiom’s meaning, slightly unnerving origins, and how to use it properly and in the right context to avoid causing offense or confusion. I also gave examples of the idiom’s use today in popular culture and provided a few alternatives to the expression. Now, you can go ahead and work the idiom into casual writing and conversation!If learning about speak of the devil was fun, we have hundreds of other idiom guides right here on our site for you to enjoy!

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