The Devil Is in the Details – Origin & Meaning

The devil is in the details sounds like an ominous warning, doesn’t it? But in fact, it is simply an idiomatic phrase that lovers of figurative expression use to point out that one should pay attention to all they do.

Chances are you’ve heard the phrase used, and when you want to make a point that success comes with attention to the smallest of details, this is the term to use.

Let’s look more closely at the origins of the phrase and how you can work into your writing to help clarify your point using colorful language.

The Devil Is in the Details Meaning

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According to dictionary.com, the devil is in the details is an idiomatic phrase that means “even the grandest project depends on the success of the smallest components.” And, if not closely paid attention to, it could possibly ruin all your efforts. As in, the devil in the details may ruin your feasibility.

No matter whether you need to complete a small task or a large one, the detail of each is what determines if you succeeded. The term is used by anyone who wants to warn or remind their audience that they should slow down and pay attention to all the components of a situation to ensure success, lest evil ruins your efforts.

What Is an Idiom?

An idiom means the words used together in the phrase have a meaning very different from the individual words. Idioms create figurative, non-literal expressions that work to make a point more strongly than if it was just said straight out.

Origins of the Devil Is in the Details

Devil Is In The Details Ngram
The trend of the idiom “Devil is in the details” over the years.

The true origin of the idiom is difficult to pinpoint, but the earliest citation was first recorded in the late 1880s, which strongly supports its use by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, a German philosopher and poet (1844-1900).

He is quoted as saying, “Der Teufel stecktim Detail,” or when translated, “The devil is in the details.”

His use of the phrase is most likely attributed to a play on the original phrase, “God is in the details,” which means a higher power has a hand in the success and truthfulness of the completed work. The “devil is in the details” provides an opposite explanation: when things go wrong, it is due to the devil or the failure to recognize even the minor details with truth and goodness.

“God is in the details” is attributed to the German architect Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), who often used the phrase to provide acknowledgment of a job well done and to remind himself his success was attributed to a higher power.

The Devil Is in the Details Used in a Sentence

  • The new zoning codes took months to write, but the ire of many in the community highlighted the devil that is often in the details when it comes to land ownership.
  • Details take time and can be difficult to plan. The devil truly is in the details and can bog you down without careful planning.
  • Of course, the devil is in the details; the ideas set forth by the school board will require a community vote.

Let’s Review

The idiomatic expression “the devil is in the detail” is likely influenced by a similar phrase, “God is in the details.” Both came into use in the late 1800s and have come to mean that the details of your plans are what can make or break your success.

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