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I am not able to understand the meaning of this idiomatic phrase:

The Devil was sick, and a saint he would be; the Devil was well, and the devil a saint was he!'

I think it means "the devil is not all that bad" because the phrase refers to him as being a saint both when he was sick and ill. Also how am I supposed to use this in a sentence?

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It is possibly sarcastic, or part of a satire. What is the source of the sentence? –  Amber Mar 21 at 14:18
    
I was skimming through a book of proverbs and found this, without any explanations though. –  Adil Ali Mar 21 at 14:20
    
It did have a few older versions of the same thing. –  Adil Ali Mar 21 at 14:20
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Manser's Dictionary of Everyday Idioms (revised 1997) says the devil - used as an answer to a statement to express anger, disbelief, or other strong feeling. So basically, when the Devil was sick he acted like a saint, but no way did he keep that up when he was well. Perhaps an allusion to that idea that the archangel Lucifer was "sick" with jealousy before he rebelled against God. The original was apparently Francois Rabelais (1494-1553), and it was "monk", not "saint" –  FumbleFingers Mar 21 at 16:32
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This question appears to be off-topic because it is about a C16 saying with archaic grammar and idiomatic usages - not relevant to contemporary English. –  FumbleFingers Mar 21 at 16:34

4 Answers 4

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Here's what I found with a search:

Promises made in adversity may not be kept in prosperity. Cf. medieval L. aegrotavit daemon, monachus tunc esse volebat; daemon convaluit, daemon ut ante fuit: when the Devil was ill, he wished to be a monk; when the Devil recovered, he was the Devil just as before.
Source: "The devil was sick, the Devil a saint would be; the Devil was well, the devil a saint was he!." The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. Oxford University Press, 1982, 1992, 1998, 2003, 2004. On answers.com.

As a sentence, this proverb was initially confusing to me. I think the key lies with the idiomatic use of “devil” to indicate a diminished possibility. A similar but more common, modern phrase would be:

You want me to apologize? Like hell I will!
Source: Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2003. On thefreedictionary.com

Which means that the speaker will not apologize.

So when the Devil is sick he is faithful, but when he's well again... like hell he still would be!


I think the closest idioms in wide use these days are: “Easy for you to say.” / “Easier said than done”, or “Promises, promises.”, but there's an element of “There are no atheists in foxholes.” as well.

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What about the usage? –  Adil Ali Mar 21 at 14:30
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@AdilAli Does my edit make it clear? I'm not sure what you mean about using this. I think—given our collective difficulty understanding it—you oughtn't. –  Tyler James Young Mar 21 at 14:35
    
Ah, this clarifies it a bit. So its just a fancy way to say, you break promises made during desperate times ? –  Adil Ali Mar 21 at 14:49
    
By the way, what would such a person be called? (i.e a person who makes promises during difficult times and fails to keep them during better times.) –  Adil Ali Mar 21 at 14:57
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@AdilAli By the way, what would such a person be called? You could try posting a new question and see if anyone can come up with anything. –  starsplusplus Mar 21 at 15:53

@TylerJamesYoung's answer is 100% correct. Here's a little more about how to parse the sentence's grammar:

The Devil was sick, and a saint he would be; the Devil was well, and the devil a saint was he!

The semicolon separates two ideas in this sentence. Since we're using the past tense, we should probably understand the sentence as talking about two different times in the past --- once when the Devil (Lucifer) was sick, and once when he was well.

One time Lucifer was sick, and a saint he would be. Another time Lucifer was well, and the devil a saint was he!

In this context, "would be" idiomatically means "would like to be" or "promised to be". (Compare "The Man Who Would Be King", or how we might say that someone was "a would-be actor".)

One time Lucifer was sick, and a saint he wished to be. Another time Lucifer was well, and the devil a saint was he!

The object and verb in the second halves of those sentences were reversed, just for the sake of making them rhyme. Let's undo that. Also, "well" in this context means "healthy", of course:

One time Lucifer was sick, and then he wished to be a saint. Another time Lucifer was well, and the devil he was a saint!

Lastly, as @TylerJamesYoung says, there's an idiomatic phrase "the devil X!"; its meaning is basically "certainly the opposite of X!" The phrase is mostly obsolete (at least in the U.S.); it's been replaced by "like hell X!"

One time Lucifer was sick, and then he promised to be a saint. Another time Lucifer was well, and do you think he was a saint then? Like hell he was!

The meaning is indeed basically equivalent to "There are no atheists in foxholes", but phrased as a little poem (one might say "a bit of doggerel") instead of a prose proverb.

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Excellent addition. Thanks for coming to ELL! –  Tyler James Young Mar 21 at 19:17

Just to "parse" two brilliant answers,

"When the devil was sick, [he promised] a saint he would be."
"When the devil was well, a saint was he, not!"

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The devil is no saint!

is in the same spirit.

I see the parallels with Promises made in adversity… and others, but they miss the meaning in the ironic contrast of the Devil's condition with his nature:

When the Devil was ill, he wished to be better; but when he was better, he was much worse!

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