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I'm reading an article about the composer Franz Joseph Haydn and the actor Johann Josef Felix von Kurz. They tried to create a piece of work together. And:

Hadyn couldn’t get the gist. Finally giving up, he cried, “The devil take the tempest!” running his hands together from one end of the keyboard to the other in a long glissando. It was exactly what Kurz was looking for.

I don't understand what Hadyn meant by "The devil take the tempest". Is it just some swearing expression like "what the hell"?

  • Is this quote paraphrased? Surely they weren't speaking in English? German, more likely? – Catija May 22 '15 at 7:49
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"Take" is in the subjunctive mood.

Usually in modern English, the subjunctive mood indicates a requirement or hypothesis, like this:

The court order requires that the defendant appear in court on May 28.

If I were you, I'd do as the court order says.

An older use of the subjunctive, expressing a wish, is almost gone, but it survives in fixed phrases like this:

God bless you.

This means the same as "May God bless you." Your example sentence means the same as "May the devil take the tempest!" God and the devil seem to be the most common subjects for verbs in this mood.

If you're curious to find out more, look up "optative mood" and "optative subjunctive".

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If you look at the quote in context (here on Google books) you see that the music was supposed to describe the waves of a tempest (a storm). This turned out to be so difficult that the dissatisfied Kurz wanted to give up cursing. The "tempest" in the phrase is a stand in for the failed piece of music the devil should take away.

As you had half figured out anyway and as pointed out in the comment "let the devil take ...." is a phrase commonly used when you find something contemptible to an extent that you want it to vanish from the face of the earth (i.e. to hell) (see Ben's comment).

  • Eike, welcome! You might want to add that "the devil take xyz" is a common curse phrase, similar to "to hell with xyz". – Stephie May 22 '15 at 7:46
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    Actually "Let the devil take…" is a different construction. I wrote a huge answer about it here. – Ben Kovitz May 22 '15 at 8:38
  • @BenKovitz, thanks for pointing out (I guess it wil take a while to digest your essay there :-) ) ! – Eike Pierstorff May 22 '15 at 8:44

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