My father-in-law noted that when I leave my children to their own devices, nowadays it could mean that they were each playing on their own iPhone.

It got me to wondering what the source of this idiom is.

A Google search did not tell me so I thought I would ask here.

  • 1
    You could look this up under device, where you see that once upon a time it meant "wish, desire." So to leave someone to their own devices meant leave them to their own wishes or desires.
    – Robusto
    Jul 20, 2015 at 0:56

2 Answers 2


The source of this idiom is French, it seems.

The relevant definition in this case for "device" in the OED (<--free link!) is:

Will, pleasure, inclination, fancy, desire. In earlier use chiefly in phr. at one's (own) device [ < Old French à mon, ton, etc. devis] ; later only in pl.; now only in phr. left to one's own devices, etc., where it is associated with sense 6 (orig devis)

The earliest citation for this is the following from 1300:

Þat he ne suld rise, Al at his aun deuise.
Cursor Mundi

(This translates to something like "...that he shall rise, all at his own device.")

There's also a citation from 1303:

Hyt ys sloghenes and feyntes To take penaunce at þy dyuys
Handlyng Synne

(It translates to something like "it is slothfulness and sluggishness to take penance at thy devices", where "to take penance" according to the OED means "to accept another's hospitality without any special preparations having being made.")

See also this Middle English Dictionary entry.


Jeremiah 18:12King James Version (KJV)

12 And they said, There is no hope: but we will walk after our own devices, and we will every one do the imagination of his evil heart.

My understanding after a quick reading is that Jeremiah is unsuccessful in getting the men of Judah to believe he is a messenger from God and to take him seriously.

He leaves them to their "own devices" and asks God to deal with it.

Devices are plots and schemes. For example they plot to kill Jeremiah.

device /dɪˈvʌɪs/



  1. a plan, method, or trick with a particular aim. "writing a letter to a newspaper is a traditional device for signalling dissent"

synonyms: ploy, plan, cunning plan, tactic, move, means, stratagem, scheme, plot, trick, ruse, gambit, manoeuvre, machination, intrigue, contrivance, expedient, dodge, artifice, subterfuge, game, wile;

Bible scholars will be able to give a much more accurate reading than I have.

  • I read your verse without chapter, and "walking after devices" in the KJV timeframe makes me think first of heraldic devices. Which turns out to be completely wrong when you expand the context and look at other translations. I still wonder if the KJV translators were using both senses, though.
    – stevesliva
    Jul 20, 2015 at 4:32

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