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Why is the expression "Speak of the devil" and not "Speaking of the devil"? For me, the -ing would make more sense because you're currently talking about someone, when he/she appears.

For example, if you're talking about something, and that subject made you remeber something else, you would say something like:

Speaking of groceries, I have to go to the supermarket in an hour.

but you wouldn't say:

Speak of groceries, I have to go to the supermarket in an hour.

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"Speaking of groceries" etc., has totally different connotations. Most of us are never really in a position to say (in the middle of some everyday conversation about fiends in general), "Speaking of the devil, Satan popped round for tea yesterday". –  FumbleFingers Jan 3 '12 at 21:55
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@fumblefingers--I always pictured the devil as a coffee drinker –  simchona Jan 3 '12 at 22:45
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@simchona: I'm sure we all know alcohol is the devil's drink, but my fantasy discussions were supposed to be a bit more genteel than that. Elegant ladies at afternoon tea, having cultured discussions about pagan icons while croooking their teacup fingers delicately. In my imaginary world, the Devil socialises with a better class of people! :) –  FumbleFingers Jan 4 '12 at 3:00
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Interesting trivia: In norwegian, "Speak of the devil" equals "Speaking of the Sun", being a short form of "Speaking of the Sun, look who's shining". In other words is the norwegian equivalent far more positive than the english form - which causes quite a few interesting episodes when doing live translating. –  nitech Jan 4 '12 at 8:20
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@nitech of course, the devil, a.k.a. Lucifer a.k.a. Morning Star is the fallen angel of light, so shining might be an attribute associated with him, too. And so it comes full circle. –  kojiro Jan 4 '12 at 17:17
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4 Answers

up vote 77 down vote accepted

"Speak of the devil" is the short form of the idiom "Speak of the devil and he doth appear".

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+1. Or proverb, or something. –  MετάEd Jan 3 '12 at 21:50
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+1. It’s like saying “When in Rome”. The rest is common knowledge…until it isn’t. –  Jon Purdy Jan 3 '12 at 23:58
    
In Korea, its "Speak of the tiger and he'll appear." –  Sȱɳɨȼ Ʈħe ǶḝÐɠḝħȱɠ Jun 28 '13 at 18:40
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The proper use of the phrase "speak of the devil" is not in the context of remembering something or one thing reminding you of something else. That kind of context is where you might say "speaking of groceries" as in your example.

The proper use of "speak of the devil" is when you are speaking about someone - usually having something bad to say or some kind of gossip when that person suddenly comes into earshot. This is appropriate insofar as "speak of the devil" is short for "speak of the devil and he will appear" as was pointed out by Jeff.

It can also be used ironically in a situation where a person joins you in mid conversation, even if this person was not the subject of the conversation. It is an often good-natured jibe on the premise that you may have been gossiping about the person or that you are comparing them to the devil.

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Specific

In this case, "Speak of the devil..." is a partial quotation of the idiom "Speak of the devil and he shall appear." (or one of its several variants).

General

"[Do something] and [something will happen]" is an elliptical construction that means "If you/one [do(es) something], [something will happen]".

Note that "do something" is an infinitive in the "[Do something] and [something will happen]". "something wil happen" is usually a present-tense or imperative verb form.

For example:

  • "Feed a rat plutonium and it will soon die of radiation poisoning." = "If you feed a rat plutonium, it will soon die of radiation poisoning."
  • "Push me and you're fired." = "If you push me, I will fire you."
  • "Eat spinach and grow strong like Popeye!" = "By eating spinach, grow strong like Popeye!"
  • "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." = "If you give a man a fish and you will have fed him for a day[...etc.]."

A similar construction replaces "and" with "or" to mean "if you don't do something, something will happen":

  • "Drop your weapon or I shoot the hostage!" = "If you don't drop your weapon, I will shoot the hostage."

Note that "Speaking of groceries, I have to go to the supermarket in an hour." is a completely different construction.

Back to "Speak of the devil..."

The full form of the phrase is an example of the construction described above:

  • "Speak of the devil and he shall appear." = "If one speaks of the devil, he shall appear."

So in essence, the idiom means that speaking of e.g. someone absent or some undesired situation is tempting fate, because that person or situation may appear.

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Language meaning changes over time so quoting 100 years back or more is not all that useful although you could win on Jeopardy.

"Speak of the Devil" by its usage today simply means someone stepped into the room who you were talking about. It's used so casually now that it has no real meaning other than that.

It's similar to people saying "How yah doing" as there is no point of putting a question mark after it. That literally means "hi" now and you don't expect someone to actually answer.

As a side note...trying to logically figure out why the phrase doesn't include "ing" is also hinting that the English language somehow has rules anymore. It's a hodgepodge of languages at this point. Only a small fraction of society actually remembers the rules and those are usually copy writers and patent lawyers. It also depends on where you are in the world as grammar is so subjective.

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@Jan Wikhom thanks for the corrections although they are only relevant on this type of site as other sites simply don't care about grammar anymore. :) –  Jason Sebring Jan 4 '12 at 7:18
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On any other site I probably would not have bothered since your message came out despite the grammatical errors, but I figured that this site beckoned me to act :) –  Jan Wikholm Jan 4 '12 at 9:43
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protected by RegDwigнt May 27 '12 at 23:38

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