What Does "between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" Mean?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

A common idiomatic expression in use in many English speaking countries is the reference to being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Among the most popular of English sayings, the origins of this particular idiom is routinely debated, with some tracing the saying back to the days of Roman and Greek mythology. Whatever the origin, the expression has come to refer to being caught in a dilemma involving only two options, with neither option offering any clear benefits.

Someone caught between the devil and the deep blue sea must choose between two options, neither of which is particularly promising.
Someone caught between the devil and the deep blue sea must choose between two options, neither of which is particularly promising.

There is some evidence that the phrase once involved simply being caught "between the devil and the deep sea." References to a "deep blue sea" emerged during the 20th century with the popularization of a song that added the blue reference to the familiar idiom. Over the years, this new and improved expression has caught on in popular use even among those who have never heard the song.

At its core, being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea is a situation that offers no easy solutions and certainly no options that the hapless individual finds appealing. While evaluating possible actions to deal with a given situation, it quickly becomes apparent that none of the actions offer a way out of the difficult position without incurring some type of collateral damage. For example, if someone accidentally plans two dates for the same night, cancels one on the excuse of illness, and then later runs into that rejected date while out with the other, that man or woman has no course of action that will prevent embarrassment and avoid hurt feelings for at least two and possibly three of the parties involved.

Being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea does not mean that one or more options cannot be employed to bring resolution to a situation. What it does imply is that none of the available solutions will allow a resolution without some amount of frustration and damage. As a result, someone will incur a loss of some type no matter what type of action is taken. This leaves the decision maker with the task of finally identifying which course of action will result in the least amount of damage, in hopes of being able to repair that damage and move on with as little difficulty as possible.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


The implication in all these discussions is that 'Devil' refers to Satan. It doesn't: the devil was a particular part of the hull cladding on a wooden ship - hence the reference to the deep blue sea.


@burcidi-- I guess similar idioms are found in many different cultures and languages. My dad's side is Polish and my grandmother will say "między młotem a kowadłem" in Polish when she's unable to decide and is in a dilemma. It means "between the hammer and the anvil." It's basically the same thing as "between the devil and the deep blue sea" although I'm not sure how it originated.

My mom is of German descent but she doesn't know German, otherwise I would have asked her for the German version too.

When I'm in a dilemma, I usually say "I'm in a pickle!"


@letshearit-- That's probably what happened because "between the devil and the deep blue sea" is older than "between a rock and a hard place."

The latter is an American idiom that, if I remember correctly, was found in the early 1900s by American miners that were underpaid and deported.

It's also natural for this idiom to take the place of "between the devil and the deep blue sea" since this was founded in Europe all the way back in the 1600s.

I think after a while, new idioms replace old ones because they are more familiar to people. Americans will understand the dilemma experienced by American miners better than Homer's Odyssey, don't you think?


I've never heard of this exact idiom in English but I'm familiar with the idea from different languages.

For example, in Turkish, there are two idioms that mean the same exact thing. One is the idiom "if I spit up, it's a mustache; if I spit down, it's a beard." It's roughly translated but it has the same meaning as "between the devil and the deep blue sea"- that there are two options and neither are desirable. Another similar idiom is "a knife with both ends sharp."


@letshearit - It seems to me that this expression is related to a very similar expression used in ancient Greece, "between Scylla and Charybdis", two sea monsters that were so close together that sailors had little choice but to face one of the two. Scylla was some kind of multi-headed monster while Charybdis was described as a whirlpool, so it was in fact very much like choosing between a devil or a body of water.

I think that what may have happened is that the idiom has simply evolved over time. As not to many people are seafaring folk these days, a rock and a hard place may just be easier for the everyday person to conceptualize.


Getting caught between the devil and the deep blue sea seems very similar to the idiom getting caught between a rock and a hard place to me, though the version mentioned here is certainly more poetic. The fact is, I have never heard the expression used outside of The Devil and the Deep Blue sea lyrics by Ella Fitzgerald, and the song The Other Side by Aerosmith.

I wonder if this particular idiom fell out of favor when between a rock and a hard place came into common usage? Whatever happened I just don't see this expression being used very often nowadays.

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