What Does Better the Devil You Know Mean?

Better the Devil You Know Meaning

Definition: Something bad but known is better than something unknown.

This proverb, often shortened to “better the devil you know,” describes how to deal with something unpleasant. The “devil” could be any bad person, place, or thing.

This idea behind this proverb is that dealing with a bad thing that you already know and have faced is preferable to something new and unknown. Since you don’t know much about the new thing, it could turn out to be much worse.

Origin of Better the Devil You Know

The devil you know quoteThis is an Irish proverb that has been in use since the 1300s. There are two main ideas about its origins.

Some say that it first appeared in a book of proverbs by R. Taverner. Others claim that it was first said during a war for control between two brothers. According to this tale, when one brother took over rule, the commoners were happy because they thought that he would be a kinder ruler.

However, he was not kinder than his brother, and so those who supported him in the war for power wished they had not.

Examples of Better the Devil You Know

The devil you know is betterThis phrase is most often used to describe people. For example, a politician in power may be frustrating or corrupt, but people may fear that his or her opponent in an election will create worse laws and be even more corrupt.

In this situation, it is better to vote for the “devil you know” because people understand how to work with that politician and fear that the opponent could be worse.

More Examples

  • “Various people, especially his Senate colleagues, have repeatedly said on and off the record that he’s terrible to work with, but what’s past is past. As they say, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” –USA Today
  • “Everybody is hunkered down and risk averse. Voters in this battened-down frame of mind are willing to elect familiar faces (better the devil you know).” –New York Times

Summary

Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know cautions that although something may be bad now, an unknown option could be even worse.