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Looking up the etymology of the Devil's nickname, Old Nick, I came across this article in OUPblog written by Anatoly Liberman

For some reason, devils, at least in English, are often called old: Old Bogey, Old Scratch, Old Nick, and even Old Nick Bogey. [...] But who was Nick? This question has bothered numerous researchers.

The author then goes on to discuss several plausible, and entertaining theories but one in particular gripped my attention:

A fairly recent hypothesis derives Old Nick from Old Iniquity, the name of the devil in medieval plays. The derivation is clever, and the OED mentions it in a noncommittal way, [...] Charles P. G. Scott, the etymologist for The Century Dictionary wrote: “In considering the application of the name Nick thus derived, and of other familiar personal names, to the Devil, we are not to think of that personage as the black malignant theological spirit of evil, but rather as a goblin of limited powers, a ‘poor’ devil, who may be half daunted, half placated, by a little friendly impudence or homely familiarity.

The expression an old man/woman usually carries a negative connotation, someone who is harmless, and perhaps frail; a figure either to be pitied on or deserving of our respect. On the other hand, old when positioned in front of kinship terms or first names has positive connotations, imagine the greeting between two close friends; e.g. "Hello old man!" and "How's me old mate?", when we mention our elderly relatives, "Dear old Auntie May" and to say that someone is reliable and trustworthy "Good ol' Barney, you can always count on him."

Curiously, pictorial representations of God in the Occident from the 15th century onwards, depict Him as looking almost elderly. The social imaginary of the Christian deity is a bearded man with a lined face and flowing white hair (think Sistine Chapel) —the stereotypical traits of an old man— advanced in his years, although vigorous, intimidating and solemn-looking at the same time; yet God is never called old. In this case, was the term old considered derogatory and disrespectful in the past?

Whereas if one Googles images of Satan, the devil, Lucifer etc. one will see time and time again a youthful, strong, malevolent and powerful-looking figure, very different from the adjective "old".

As far as I'm aware, the adjective, old, is never used in Italian to describe the devil, instead Italians will often call him: il male /MA-le/ (evil/wickedness), la bestia (the beast), L'Anticristo (the Antichrist), Principe delle Tenebre (Prince of Darkness), Satana (Satan) etc. and all of these expressions sound grotesque, frightening, and fearful. Now I am well aware that equivalent English expressions exist but there are no Italian equivalents for these English nicknames: Old Nick, Old Scratch, Old Ned, Old Roger, Old Horny, Old Harry, Old Billy, old boy (US term, according to the OED), which sound terribly innocuous, endearing and affectionate to my ears.

  • Why did the English and Americans freely adopt "old" to describe Satan and not God?
  • Were the nicknames Old Nick, Old Bogey, Old Scratch etc. meant to be jocular, fearful or derogatory in nature?
  • Did the word old have different connotations before the 19th century?
  • And finally, when was the adjective old first used as a nickname for the devil?
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They sound affectionate to my ears as well. I think these expressions are intended to minimize the Devil, but don't ask me to figure out the psychological reasons for doing this. –  Peter Shor Apr 6 at 15:47
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It's common in AmE, in the southeast especially, to use old to reference something familiar and well-known. I have never heard of the devil referred to as Nick, however. That old devil and old Lucifer are commonly used. I agree that old is more often used favorably, but it is also used for words with negative meaning. –  Mike Apr 6 at 16:28
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I think there's something to the argument that "old" denotes familiarity ("Ol' buddy, ol' pal", "chip off the old block", etc.) but I wonder if there's a subtle jab also implied in this usage, akin to the ought-to-know-better tone of "that ol' trick." Paul, for example, writes "[I forgive] so that Satan will not outsmart us. For we are familiar with his evil schemes." (II Cor 2:11 NLT). Old may also be a sly quip about Satan's unoriginality. –  anonymous Apr 6 at 17:02
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"Old" isn't reserved exclusively for the devil in supernatural characterizations. We also have "jolly old Saint Nick" (Santa Claus). –  Sven Yargs May 28 at 18:58
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It is a back-clipping, as also in the line with which it rhymes: "lontano, lontano, lontan." And it is pronounced sah-TAHN, including by basso Cesare Siepi, like Boito a native speaker. It is thus a male rhyme--which Sir Philip Sidney is quite wrong to consider generically un-Italian, as witness most notably the famous "Largo al factotum" from Il Barbiere di Siviglia. But we are being very bad to discuss this language thus far. –  Brian Donovan May 30 at 17:27

6 Answers 6

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+50

According to Daniel Defoe, The Political History of the Devil (1726), the attribution of oldness to the Devil reflects his relative experience and wiliness:

Well might the Text call it listening to the Council of the young Heads ; that it was indeed with a Vengeance ! but those young Heads too were acted by an old Devil, who for his Craft is called, as I have observ'd, the Old Serpent.

Defoe says that the Devil is first called "the old Serpent" in Revelations xii: 9. The Genevan New Testament (1557) gives this wording for that passage of the Bible:

And the great dragon, that old serpent called the deuyl and Satan was cast out, which deceaueth all the world. and he was cast into the earth, and his Angels were cast out with him.

It is this name for the Devil that appears earliest in the company of "old." For example, from Bishop Poynet, The Real Reformation Catechism of 1553 (1553):

Scholar.—In the serpent's head lieth all his venom, and the whole pith of his life and force. Therefore do I take the serpent's head to betoken the whole power and kingdom, or more truly the tyranny, of the old serpent the devil. The Seed (s Saint Paul doth plainly teach) is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, very God an very man : conceived of the holy Ghost : engendered of th womb and substance of Mary, the blessed pure and undefiled maid : and was so born and fostered by her as other babes be, saving that he was most far from all infection of sin.

Master.—All these foundations that thou hast laid are most true. Now therefore let us go forward to those his doings, wherein lieth our salvation and conquest against that old serpent.

Likewise, William Crashaw, The Parable of Poyson. In Five Sermons of Spirituall Poyson (1618) refers to "the old Serpent" twice:

And as Christ saith of miraculous Faith, that by the vertue of it, they shall take up Serpents and if they drinke deadly poison, it shall not hurt them : So is it true of iustifying Faith, that whosoeuer beleeues, shall wrastle with Sathan the old Serpent, and be safe, and the drink of the deadly poison, which his sinnes gaue him in the time of ignorance and impenitencie, shall not hurt him : This was prefigured in the brasen Serpent, which as it deliuered the people from the biting and stinging of fiery Serpents ; so our Sauiour lift up upon the Crosse, saues all them that looke up to him with the eyes of Faith, from all the fiery and poisoned darts of the Diuell, whether darts of temptations here or of damnation hereafter.

and

Wee here learne how naturall and proper it is for wicked men, to mock, abuse, and persecute Gods children : For they being Serpents, euen the spirituall generation of the old serpent Sathan, therefore by the sentence of God himselfe, they are at an euerlasting odds & enmity with Gods people.

And from George Downame, A Treatise of Justification (1633):

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wildernesse, that they who were bitten of the fiery serpents by looking on the brasen Serpent, which was a figure of Christ, should be healed : even so the Sonne of man was to be lifted up upon the Crosse, that whosoever being stung by the old serpent the Devill, looketh upon him with the eie of a true faith, that is beleeueth in him, should not perish, but have eternall life, which truth is acknowledged by the Master of the sentences : [Latin quotations omitted].

And from Henry Ainsworth, Annotations upon the Five Bookes of Moses, the Booke of the Psalmes, and the Song of Songs, or Canticles (1639):

And as no salve or medicine could heale the bodies of those that were bitten: so can no worke of man cure the biting of that old Serpent or sting of sinne, but the venom thereof rageth and reigneth, tormenting the conscience unto death.

Many instances of "the old Serpent" as a nickname for the Devil appear in later 17th-century writings

"Old Nick" appears to be the oldest of the three main terms that the OP mentions. From Edmund Gayton, Pleasant Notes Upon Don Quixote (1654):

But that which sticks I'th' stomack of our Don, Like a good Meale (if ever he get one) Was the redeemed Slaves ingratitude, Whom he enlrg'd and gave full latitude Of Leg and Arme, which they uncivill Devils Employ against the Rescuer from their evils. Whom thinke you in this Fact was Paramount, But that unlucky Rogue Gines Passamont ? Whom though the Gallies misse, yet for this trick lle warrant him a Passe-port to old Nick.

And from "A Song" in Rump: Or an Exact Collection of the Choycest Poems and Songs, Relating to the Late Times (1662):

The Swearer there shall punish be still,

But Drunkennesse private be counted no ill,

Yet both kinds of lying as much as you will,

For Round-heads Old Nick stand up now.

Francis Grose, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) reports a folk explanation for the terms "Old Nick" and "Old Scratch":

OLD NICK, the devil. The following ludicrous reason is given for this appellation, and that of old scratch : the angel first employed in forming women, had forgot to cut their parts of generation, which the devil undertook to do by the following contrivance, he placed himself in a kind of sawpit, with a scythe fixed to a stick, in his hand, and directed the women to straddle over it ; the pit being too deep for the length of his instrument, he gave the tall women only a moderate scratch, but the little women by the shortness of their legs coming more within his reach, he maliciously gave them monstrous gashes, or nicks, whence he was called old scratch, and old nick.

That same source identifies the terms "Old Harry," "Old One," and "Old Roger" as additional then-current nicknames for the Devil.

One of the earliest occurrences of "Old Scratch" in a Google Books search is from "The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean" in Christmas Entertainments (1740):

You have a thousand Jack Catches now attending you without with Halters and Hatchets to make an end of her [Jack's grandmother's black cat], when your Honour pleases to direct her Execution ; or else you have a fiery Dragon gaping for her, if you give but once the Signal for her Death : This Box, great Sir, bears you the absolute Power over her, over us, over Old Scratch or Nicholas the Antient.

One year later, Henry Fielding, An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741):

You see, Madam, says she [Mrs. Jewkes], I carry the Marks of your Passion about me ; but I have received Order from my Master to be civil to you, and I must obey him : For he is the best Man in the World, notwithstanding your Treatment of him. My treatment of him; Madam, says I ? Yes, says she, your Insensibility to the Honour he intends you, of making you his Mistress. I would have you to know, Madam, that I would not be Mistress to the greatest King, no nor Lord in the Universe. I value my Vartue more than I do any thing my Master can give me ; and so we talked about my Vartue ; and I was afraid at first, she had heard something about the Bantling, but I find she hath not ; tho' she is as jealous, and suspicious, as old Scratch.

John Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms (1848) notes that in informal American speech the word old had by the late 1820s acquired the sense of wiliness:

OLD. Crafty; cunning. Used in vulgar language.—Webster [1828]. When a person attempts to get the advantage of another, and is frustrated in the attempt by the sagacity or shrewdness of the other, the latter will say, 'I'm a little too old for you,' meaning that he is too cunning to be deceived by him.

This sense of old may or may not have come from the longstanding association of old with the Devil; a more neutral reading of the phrase "I'm a little too old for you" is that it means "I'm not as naïve as you think."

To sum up, the association of the Devil with old may in the first instance be connected to the biblical reference to "that old serpent called the devil and Satan," and subsequently (and more generally) to the Devil's ancientness and cunning.

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You might be interested in this definition of old. If you want you can include it in your answer. Taken from: Lexicon Balatronicum: A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and ... By Francis Grose –  Mari-Lou A Jun 1 at 4:20

Old Nick is slang with an interesting threap:

"OldNick," the devil. Hotten says from the Scandinavian knickar, the destroying principle. Butler says in Hudibras: "Nick Macheivel had ne'er a trick. Though he gave name to our "Old Nick." Probably the one explanation is as nearly correct as the other. -The American slang dictionary, by James Maitland.

EDIT:

Why is he old? First, Nick is was not a Christian name but

"A name given in ridicule or contempt: from the French 'nom de nique'. Nique is a movement of the head to mark a contempt for any person or thing." -Lexicon balatronicum. A dictionary of buckish ... . Grose, Francis (Published 1811)

'Old' in the context of the devil refers to the familiarity of his interference; 'nick of time' refers to escaping his domain (by the grace of height) and is referenced in the explanation for the 'nick' or 'scratch' etymology noted on @Sven Yargs, and in our contemporary use of 'nick of time' or "or at the critical moment"

OLD ONE, the devil. OLD NICK, the devil. The following ludicrous reason is given for this appellation, and that of old scratch ... with a scythe fixed to a stick... he gave the tall women only a moderate scratch, but the little women ... more within his reach, he maliciously gave them monstrous gashes, or nicks, whence he was called old scratch, and old nick. -A classical dictionary of the vulgar tongue. . Grose, Francis, 1731?-1791.(Published 1785) (See @Swen Yargs for full quote)

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+1 especially for threap, which I had never come across before. Yes, there are many conflicting theories concerning the origins of Old Nick. –  Mari-Lou A Apr 7 at 6:22
    
I am puzzled by that usage, though, as M-W gives only a verb sense, and while OED gives some noun ones, none appears to fit here. –  Brian Donovan May 28 at 15:14
    
@BrianDonovan I had presumed it to mean argument=topic, but now that I've checked more carefully, you're probably right. –  Mari-Lou A May 29 at 3:13
    
Where do you have evidence that "in the nick of time" refers to escaping from the devil? When I asked for the etymological roots of this idiom, no one mentioned this theory. Saying that, I do like the French connection, it sounds very appealing but... you need to provide a solid reference, please. –  Mari-Lou A May 31 at 22:30
    
@Mari-Lou I know I've read it. Thus far, I have 'To Nick'. To win at dice, to hit the mark just in the nick of time, or at the critical moment. –  Third News May 31 at 23:26

As @Dingo_Dan pointed out, I strongly suspect that this is "old" in the somewhat dated slang sense of "well known", especially given that "Old Nick" seems likely to have originated as a way to avoid referring to the devil by name. "Old Nick" would help distinguish this from any other "Nick" you might know.

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I don't think referring to depictions of the devil, and pointing out that they resemble young, not old, men, is helpful here.

Someone will blast me for guessing, but while waiting for an authoritative answer, my guess is that "old" here refers to the devil having been around for a long time (certainly longer than Man, for instance). It emphasizes that this character is nothing new, but has been plaguing Man from the (his) beginning.

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“Old man” in both OED sense 3. colloq. and sense 2. Theol. might be relevant here.

Regarding sense 3. colloq., I already knew the phrase as slang for the captain of a ship, or for a military commander. The OED’s first example of the ship-captain sense dates back only to 1821, but examples from 1840 (Dana) & 1865 both suggest it was old established among sailors. The military sense seems only to date from 1830 per OED, though some of the nineteenth-century examples likewise suggest greater antiquity in oral use. Usage of the term for a “master, overseer, or foreman” has examples back to 1668 (Dryden).

These usages smack of wary disrespect for a person in authority, which the devil is per Ephesians 2.2 & Luke 4.6.

OED definition for sense 2. Theol. (said to derive from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, as an alternative to “Old Adam”) begins “Mankind (or a person) representative of unregenerate human nature; the primitive or violent aspects of a person's character”; examples start with Ælfric.

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The oldest widely accessible text describing the devil as old is Revelation 12:9 "And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him."

The Greek word translated old is archaios, meaning "that has been from the beginning, original, primal, old; ancient of men, things, times, conditions." 12:9 (καὶ ἐβλήθη ὁ δράκων ὁ μέγας, ὁ ὄφις ὁ ἀρχαῖος, καλούμενος διάβολος καὶ ὁ σατανᾶς, ὁ πλανῶν τὴν οἰκουμένην ὅλην _ ἐβλήθη εἰς τὴν γῆν, καὶ οἱ ἄγγελοι αὐτοῦ μετ᾽ αὐτοῦ ἐβλήθησαν. (emphasis mine) http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/gnt/rev012.htm#009

Archaios is the root of the English word archaic. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/archaic

When the New Testament was translated into Latin, the phrase serpens antiquus (ancient serpent) was used http://www.sacredbible.org/studybible/NT-27_Revelation.htm#12

Martin Luther's hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" includes the lines: "And still our ancient foe, doth seek to work us woe. His craft and power are great, And armed with cruel hate, On earth is not his equal."(emphasis mine) The English translation uses ancient foe in the place of old serpent. This biblical tradition harks back to the Genesis account of the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

These usages do not convey an idea that the entity described is aged or old in appearance, rather that he has been around a long time, that he dates from antiquity.

@ Sven Yargs has documented a rich history of references in an earlier post, and I agree with @ Drew in saying that the fact that the devil has been around a long time is the sense in which he is ever said to be old or of old.

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