Speak of the devil

Article published on Dec. 13, 2006
Article published on Dec. 13, 2006

. . . and you grow horns!

‘Parli del diavolo e spuntano le corna!’ Or so they say in Italy, alluding to a person who unexpectedly appears right when you are in the middle of having a (spiteful) conversation about them.

They also speak of the devil in Germany, but the horns never appear: ‘Wenn man von Teufel spricht’ (literally ‘when one speaks of the devil’), as well as in Britain: ‘Speak of the devil’. The devil crops up mostly in Latinate and Germanic languages, in many proverbs which probably originate in the Christian moral code, which identifies Lucifer with Evil.

A variant used in France and Poland, however, substitutes the devil with a wolf. The French say: ‘Quand on parle du loup,’ which is not unlike the Polish: ‘O wilku mowa’ – expressions which can surely be traced back to the famous Latin ‘Lupus in fabula’.

But the most original are the Spanish who, curiously, say: ‘Hablando del Rey de Roma/ por la puerta asoma’ - ‘Speak of the King of Rome/ and he pops up at the door’. So why bring the Roman monarch into the game? At first, according to linguists, it was ‘Hablando del ruin de Roma’ – ‘Speak of the wretch of Rome’, in reference to the complete faux pas of appearing when one is least expected – during a conversation about oneself. Such a faux pas, in fact, to be renowned across the Roman Empire. With time, the miser has ironically become the ‘king’ in popular language. It’s still better than the devil though, right?