Some terms now used to refer to the Devil (for instance, Lucifer) didn't come up until rather late (at least in Portuguese, Wikipedia isn't much clear for the English term).

On the other hand, some terms were in use since the Middle Ages. Wikipedia mentions that

The Modern English word devil descends from the Middle English devel, from Old English dēofol, that in turn represents an early Germanic borrowing of Latin diabolus. This in turn was borrowed from Ancient Greek Greek: διάβολος (diábolos), "slanderer",[6] from 'Greek: 'διαβάλλειν (diabállein) "to slander": διά- (diá-) "across, through" + βάλλειν (bállein) "to hurl", probably akin to the Sanskrit gurate "he lifts up".

So it's obvious that the term devil (in an older form) was in use in the British Isles since a very early age.

My question is about the term 'Satan'. Despite its origin being very old (which the etymological dictionaries I checked online clearly show), I wonder when did it come into common use. After all, folks say 'what the devil' but not 'what the satan', or some such. Is it only because it is a mouthful, or is it because it was a late newcomer?

P.S.: I believe the answer to my question is to be found in OED but, alas, I cannot access it.

  • "Common usage" for religious terms in English really doesn't start before the King James Version (because before that it was illegal to translate the Bible into English): do you consider that 'rather late' or 'very early'? Dec 27, 2016 at 23:35
  • It's never been in "common" use, to the extent that "devil" is. Briefly around 1825 it was about one-tenth as common, but since 1850 or so it's been less than one two-hundreth as common.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 27, 2016 at 23:36
  • 2
    Note that the name was not consistently spelled Satan during the period 1500–1700, as this Ngram chart of "Satan" (blue line) vs. "Sathan" (red line) indicates. As a result, the results of searches for Satan understate the frequency of use of the name in English writing of the period.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 6, 2017 at 23:07
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    Lucifer is a specific entity; a personal name. Devil is a category, like a taxonomic classification. Despite, eg, The Exorcist who thinks ‘possessed of the…’ as opposed to ‘… a devil’ more common? Satan falls between those stools; normally, it’s a personal name but - assuming reasonable translation, phrases like ’The Great Satan’ make it clear there could be other Satans. The other possibility is that ‘The Great Satan’ is equivalent to ‘Peter the Great’ or ‘Alfred the Great’ or ‘Ivan the Terrible’ but wait! All of those are honorifics; they imply not loathing or fear but reverance. Jan 9, 2017 at 1:03
  • 1
    @ Tim Lymington. I certainly can't agree with you here. Whilst Wycliffe's bible is often considered the first, there are English bibles from centuries prior to that time. In the OED, there are references to "Satan" in English from the 14th century, and to "the devil" from the 9th century. I feel sure that devil long predates Christianity anyway. ?a1300 XI Pains of Hell 17 in Old Eng. Misc. 147 Wiltu ihere me sathan. 1377 Langland Piers Plowman B. ix. 61 For þei seruen sathan her soule shal he haue
    – WS2
    Jan 10, 2017 at 0:18

3 Answers 3


The Google Books optical character recognition tool does a poor job of reading books printed in blackletter, which was the dominant form of English printing until the late 1500s—so Google Books is not very good at finding instances of particular words from texts of the blackletter era.

Nevertheless, in one instance Google Books was able to find a match for Satan because it appears in roman type because Satan is the a character in a play. From the opening scene of Thomas Lupton, A Moral and Pitieful Comedie, Intituled, All for Money: Plainly Representing the Manners of Men and Fashion of the World Nowe-a-days (1578):

Here commeth in Satan the great deuill as deformedly dressed as may be.

Satan. Ohe, ohe, ohe, ohe, my friende Sinne I was neuer so merrie

In hearing thy qualities I cannot be wearie:

Slightly earlier instances appear in Thomas Owen, Godly Contemplations for the Unlearned (1575) [combined snippets]:

Sathan the author a father of all lyers & slanderers. And hereby we may easily come to find the first offspring of all these calumnies : the first & only author and teacher of all calumniators, is Satan the head calumniator himselfe. Who knoweth not this ancient fraud & accustomed fetch of that comon enemy both of God & all mankind who hath no more potent meanes to resist the honour of God, to oppresse his seruants, and hinder the progress of true vertue and ...

in John Collier, The Rocke of Regard, Divided into Foure Parts (1576):

Attending still, when triall of my fayth

Shall treade downe death, and Sathan force to reele,

And boldly fay, till latter gaspe of breath,

My soul through faith the joyes of heaven doth feele.

and in Innocent Gentillet, A Discourse upon the Meanes of Wel Governing and Maintaining in Good Peace, A Koingdome, or Other Principalitie (1577/1602):

Fo whe[n] the cleare light of the Gospell began first to spring and appeare, Sathan (to occupie and busie mens minds with toyish playes and trifles, that they might give no attendance unto true wisdome) devised this policie, to raise up jeasters and fooles in Courts, which creeping in by quipping and prettie conceits, first in words and after by bookes, uttering their pleasant ieasts in the Courts and banquets of kings and princes, laboured to root up all all the true principles of Religion and Policie. ...

For than Sathan being a disguised person amongst the French, in the likenesse of a merrie jeaster, acted a Comædie, but shortly ensued a woeful Tragœdie. ... Moreover Sathan useth strangers of France, as his fittest instruments to infect us stil with this deadly poyson sent out of Italie, who have so highly promoted their Machivelliam bookes, that he is of no reputation in the Copurt of France which hath not Machiavels writings at the fingers ends, and that both in the Italian and French tongues, & can apply his precepts to all purposes, as the Oracles of Apollo.

And similarly, from Geffrey Whitney, The Choice of Emblemes (1586, page 129):

And as the surge doth worke both daie, and nighte,

And shakes the shore, and ragged rockes doth rente:

So Sathan stirres, with all his maine, and mighte,

Continuall siege, our soules to circumuente.

From George Gifford, A Dialogue Concerning Withes and Witchcraft (1593):

Daniel. ... And in the Reuelation chapter 12. all the deuils make that great red dragon: And out Saviour doth shewe how close they ioyne in one, when he saith, If Satan be deuided against Satan, or if Satan cast foorth Satan, how shall his kingdom endure? Matth. 12. now then, whether the witch deale, as she supposeth, with one spirit, or with manie, it commeth all to one effect, thus farre, that one dealeth not alone, but with the helpe of others. So that he or she that hath familiaritie with one deuill, it is as much as if it wer with an hundreth. Moreover, the deuils be spirits, they have no bodily shape or likenesse but yet can make an appearance of a shape, as appeareth by the inchanters before Pharao, when their rods were turned into serpents in shew. Exod. 7. And then one deuill can seem to be foure or five, and foure or five can seeme to be one: It is therefore but the craft of Satan, to make shew of more or lesse.

M. B. [Schoolmaster.] Do you not thinke then, that where the more deuils be, there is the greater power of Satan?

From Robert Roche, Eustathia, Or the Constancie of Susanna (1599):

For as he faithful Abrahams heart, did proue,

By willing offring, of his guiltlesse sonne;

And tride Iobs stable faith, and constant loue,

What time she Sathan, his consent had wonne,

To leaue Iobs health forlorne, and wealth vndone:

Even so he sifted, Susans constancie,

If that shee would, her pure faith falsifie.

And to complot this treason, by temptation,

False Sathan had fit men, fit time, fit place;

Was never foe so fitted for invasion,

The plot once laid he would not bate an ace,

The price was shame (her glories dim disgrace)

The meanes, the men, the time, the place, thus fitted;

Yet Sathan prov'd a foole, and shallow witted.

From "W.S.," The Puritaine: or, The Widdow of Watling Street (1607):

Widow Plus. Tempt me not Satan.

Sir Godfrey. Satan? Do I looke like Satan? I hope the Deuill's not so old as I, I tro.

And from Johannes Boemus, The Manners Lawes and Customes of All Nations (translated 1611):

Had not Satan the Prince of the world, and enemie of mankind, (by sowing his most pestilent Cockles among the good corne) confounded their most intire and happie estate. ...

Moreover also, after Christ Iesus, ... had confounded their damnable idolatry and spread abroad a new religion, and new institutions of life, yea and preuailed so much, as being receiued of all nations in the world, there could nothing more be desired for the obtayning of true felicity: when Satan returning into his former malice,and going about to circumuent,and get againe his habitation in mens curious hearts,which before (by the comming of Christ) hee was forced to forsake, reduced some into their former errors, and so corrupted and blinded others with new hereticall opinions, as it had been better for them, neuer to haue tasted the truth, then so sodainely and maliciously to forsake the knowne way of saluation.

In addition to all of these instances, we have The Bible. Translated according to the Ebrew and Greeke, and conferred with the best translations in diuers languages (1605), which, according to Google Books, contains 49 pages with one or more matches for Satan, but in fact has many more, since once again Google Books' OCR struggles to pull the word Satan out of the blackletter text of the Bible itself, but does better finding the word in the roman accompanying notes. Particularly noteworthy is the Book of Job, in which Satan makes a memorable entrance in verse 6 of chapter 1:

6 Now on a day, when the children of God came and stoode before the Lord, Satan came also among them.

7 Then the Lord sayde unto Satan, Whence commest thou? And Satan answered the Lord, saying, From compassing the earth to and fro, and from walking in it.


The foregoing examples present Satan (or Sathan) as a familiar figure to readers of the the period 1575–1611. And I see no reason to suppose that this familiarity arose suddenly in 1575.

The problem with searches of earlier books is that they run afoul of the books' hard-to-read blackletter type. But for evidence that Satan is not a latecomer to popular discourse in English, consider that he receives three mentions in the Man of Law's Tale in The Canterbury Tales (1387):

O Sathan enuious / syn thilke day

That thou were chaced from outr heritage

Wel knowestow / to wommen the olde way

Thou madest Eua / brynge vs in seruage

Thou wolt fordoon / this cristen mariage


Sathan / that euere vs waiteth to bigile

Saugh of Custance / al hire perfeccioun

And caste anon / how he myghte quite hir while

And made a yong knyght / þat dwelte in that toun

Loue hire so hoote of foul affeccioun


Allas Custance / thou hast no champion

No fighte kanstow noght so weylaway

But he / that starf for our redempcion

And boond Sathan / and yet lith ther he lay

So be / thy stronge champion this day

Likewise, Sattan plays a prominent role in "The Harrowing of Hell" in the York Mystery Plays (14th to 16th centuries):

Belsabub. What þanne, is lymbus lorne, allas!

Garre Satan, helpe þat we were wroken,

Þis werke is worse þanne euere it was.

Sattan. I badde ʒe schulde be boun

If he made maistries more,

Do dynge þat dastard doune,

And sette hym sadde and sore.

So it may be that English speakers have been on more or less intimate terms with Satan/Sathan/Sattan since before Middle English gave way to Modern English. In a culture steeped in Christianity, familiarity with the Bible's various human, angelic, and diabolical characters must have been very widespread indeed. And Satan is certainly one of the more visible malevolent figures in it. I would be very surprised if demonic characters such as Satan, Lucifer, and Beelzebub were not as well known in their way as heroic figures such as Samson, Judith, and Joshua were in theirs.


The earliest I can trace the concept ‘Satan’ expressed on earth is to about 2,000 BC. The earliest I can trace the word ‘Satan’, in its probable use in the UK, is to about 590 AD. The earliest I can trace the word in English is to the 10th century, then maybe 1300 AD - and from 1377, thereafter.

The word is used in the introduction of the first chronological book of the bible, which is Job, which was probably written originally in cuneiform, and later translated (probably by Moses) into Hebrew. Internal evidence in the book of Job indicates that the discourses of which the book consists were spoken in the times of Abraham’s grandfather, therefore about 2,000 BC, and were probably documented by Elihu, one of the participants in the book. It is one of the most ancient, coherent documents on earth.

The Hebrew word לְשָׂטָ֣ן , satan, used in the Pentateuch by Moses (in about 1500 BC) means adversary and is used as a general word describing human behaviour. As a name it occurs in several of the Hebrew books of the bible and is then transliterated into Greek letters σαταν, satan, and used as a descriptive name thereafter in the New Testament writings, written between 40 AD and 90 AD.

This entity is given ten descriptive names in scripture (that I am aware of) being Serpent, Satan, Lucifer, Diabolos, Beelzebul or Beelzebub (from Baal-Zebub), Poneros, Drakon, Kategoros, Antidikos and Animos.

In about 590 AD, Columba writes to Pope Boniface IV (probably in Latin) and refers to previous letters sent to Pope Gregory :

Once and again Satan hindered the bearers of our letters written formerly to pope Gregory of good memory, which are subjoined below.

Columba set up the monastery in Iona, Scotland, in 563, then set up the monastery of Luxovium in Burgundy, then returned to Iona where he died in 597.

There can be no doubt that Columba, in his teaching of the monks and the populace in Scotland, would have freely spoken to them of Satan, having used the word in his missive to Pope Boniface, but what language he communicated in is anybody’s guess. He was preaching to Pictish people and speaking with monks, so probably used Celtic languages, plus Latin, to do so.

The OED entry for ‘Satan’ lists an attribution in the 10th century (for which Laurel has supplied the link to Genesis A,B) and then gives a questioned occurrence in 1300. From 1377 the OED seems to be confident.

OE [10th century] Genesis [line 347] Satan maðelode, sorgiende spræc.

?a1300 XI Pains of Hell 17 in Old Eng. Misc. 147 Wiltu ihere me sathan.

1377 Langland Piers Plowman B. ix. 61 For þei seruen sathan her soule shal he haue.

a1400 (▸a1325) Cursor Mundi (Vesp.) l. 19884 For-sakes þou sathan [Gött. sathane, Trin. Cambr. satone].

a1400 (▸a1325) Cursor Mundi (Vesp.) l. 12023 Þou wreche sede o felunny! Werck o dred, sun o sathan [Fairf. saton, Gött. sathane, Trin. Cambr. sathone].

c1425 Cast. Persev. 552 in Macro Plays 93 Be Satan, þou art a nobyl knawe to techyn men fyrst fro goode!

As an aside, the Greek word bolos refers to a small, circular fishing net weighted at the edges thrown, skilfully, by a single individual with a characteristic spin of the wrist (cf the South American bolas used to capture four-footed land animals). The word also attaches to the way a gambler throws dice because the same flick of the wrist is employed.

Thence adding dia, through, gives a metaphoric word which envisages the casting of a net through an enemy. Which is exactly what a slanderous allegation does to those afflicted by them. They are entangled, inside themselves, by the false allegation, the necessity (or not) of clearing their name and the shame of the mud-slinging. The Entangler could be an adequate translation for Diabolos.

  • “Genesis” refers to Genesis A, B and 347 refers to line 347 not year. According to Wikipedia it was written in the tenth century.
    – Laurel
    Nov 22, 2017 at 19:11

If we are talking specifically of the Christian Satan, and not some pagan doppelganger like Cernunnos, the popularized version of the term in England begins with the spread of the Harrowing of Hell myth. In The History of Hell by Turner he writes.

There are many references to the descent in early Christian writing, but the most complete and influential account is the Gospel of Nicodemus. The first known written version is from the fifth century, but it was undoubtedly widely known before that, and it was accepted as canonical for centuries.

He goes onto explain that this Gospel is broken down into two main parts, the Harrowing Hell section, and the Acts of Pilate.

What's interesting about this Gospel, however, is that it eventually morphs into the oldest testaments of faith among the Christians: the Apostles' Creed.

Because the Apostles' Creed is so widespread, and it's so closely tied to Satan and the Harrowing of Hell, finding when it arrives in Britain will give context when the Christian idea of Satan is in regular usage.

In The Apostles' Creed we find:

The Received Form of the creed has a much more obscure history. The additional clauses came in at different times, though in themselves some of them are very old. The addition to the first article, e.g. “Maker of heaven and earth,” first appears in this form in Gaul about 650 AD, though similar forms are found in much older creeds. Another addition, “He descended into hell,” meets us first in Rufinus as part of the creed of Aquileia, but is probably also old in that church. It is known that the creed had assumed nearly its present shape (perhaps without the above clauses, and that on the communion of saints) by the time of Faustus of Reiz, about 460 AD. Thence it spread, and had reached Ireland apparently before the end of the 7th century. In England it appears a century later, about 850 AD (from the court of Charlemagne?), and from the beginning of the 10th century it largely superseded the older from. The same applies to other countries, so that the Gallican form is now the one in common use. Two significant changes may be noted in the form given to it. In England, whose form we follow, the Reformers substituted for “the resurrection of the flesh” the words, “the resurrection of the body,” and in Germany the Lutherans change the word “catholic” to “Christian,” in “the holy catholic Church.”

  • 1
    Your "answer" looks rather like a religious disputation about the Christian notion of Satan than a linguistic answer to the OP's linguistic question about the term "Satan". Nov 19, 2017 at 11:24
  • This would have been a lot more interesting if any form of Satan were to be found in any form of the Apostles Creed, but alas., at least the page you link to contains no mention of the word we are looking for. So the assumption that the spread of some tekst coincided with the spread of a word just because supposedly that word was used in some old predecessor of that text seems speculative at best...
    – oerkelens
    Nov 22, 2017 at 14:11
  • @oerkelens Did I really have to explain that the Harrowing of Hell contained Satan to you? I guess I did.
    – K Dog
    Nov 24, 2017 at 17:26

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