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I came across the following old proverb in which I noticed that a bare infinitive verb is used after a singular subject.

Devil take the hindmost.

My question is: was it normal at that time to use a bare infinitive verb in such constructions?

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    Another form I've seen is "May the devil take the hindmost", which seems normal. It's possible that the version you've seen is a contraction of this longer one, or at least expresses the same idea – Chris H Jan 10 '19 at 18:53
  • Chris H@: would you please cite the version with 'May...'. I will be grateful. – Mido Mido Jan 10 '19 at 18:58
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    I think this is subjunctive rather than a bare infinitive. Some languages have a benedictive mood; here, the subjunctive is acting as the opposite, the “maledictive mood.” – James McLeod Jan 10 '19 at 19:25
  • Yep, it's short for "May the devil take the hindmost." – Hot Licks Jan 10 '19 at 19:38
  • There are more than enough old curses in the forms of "May xyz do 123 to you" or wishes "May you be 123 before xyz does something to you" that direct citations don't seem necessary. – Patrick Hughes Jan 10 '19 at 20:16
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'The Devil take the hindmost' in the early sixteenth century

Although I have always supposed that the expression originated as either "Let the Devil take the hindmost" or "May the Devil take the hindmost," early published instances of the expression include neither let nor may.

Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher use the expression at least three times in their plays. From Beaumont & Fletcher, Philaster: or, Love Lies a Bleeding (1609):

Thrasiline. What if a toy take 'em i'th' heels now, and they run all away, and cry the Devil take the hindmost?

Dion. Then the same Devil take the foremost too, and sowce him for his breakfast; if they all prove Cowards, my curses fly amongst them and be speeding.

From John Fletcher, The Tragedy of Bonduca (1613):

1 Soldier. Flee, flee, he kills us.

2 Soldier. He comes, he comes.

Judas. The devil take the hindmost.

And from John Fletcher, The Humourous Lieutenent, a Tragi-comedy (1619):

Leontius. I have tumbl'd with this old Body, beaten like a Stock-fish, / And stuck with Arrows, like an arming Quiver, / Blouded and bang'd almost a day before 'em, / And glad I have got off then. Here's a mad Shaver, / He fights his share I am sure, when e'r he comes to't; / Yet I have seen him trip it tithly too, / And cry the Devil take the hindmost ever.

An editor's note included in a 1750 edition of Philaster traces the inspiration for the expression to Horace:

and cry, The Devil take the Hindmost?} Occupet extremum Scabies ["Let an itch take the last one"], says Horace: To which Execration, no Doubt, out Author's had an Eye.


'The Devil take the hindmost' later in that century

Other seventeenth-century instances of the phrase likewise omit the leading let or may. Following are some examples from a considerably larger number of instances. From Edmund Gayton, Pleasant Notes Upon Don Quixot (1654):

But it was Sancho's misfortune to have a more Indocile Creature beneath him, and lesse manageable than the Dons, so that he was left (as always the Asse is) for the reckoning. He urged often, like Master, like man; and love me, and love my Dog: Beside other more true and significant Proverbs; as, Sue a Begger and get a Louse, Where there is nothing to be had, the Common-wealth must lose her due, The Devill take the hindmost.

Note that the expression occurs here in the context of various well-established proverbs.

From Charles Cotton, Scarronides: or, Virgile Travestie (1664):

he bubled out his sentence / But that they fled to shew repentance, / And he that erst had made a din most, Now, cry'd the Devil take the hindmost. / Even as a flock of Geese do flutter, / When crafty Reynard comes to Supper.

From Richard Head, The Canting Academy, or, The Devils Cabinet Opened (1673):

It seems as soon as their Master was gone, a very large dark gray Owle that sate upon a Beam just over against them, was upon the merry pin, or had a mind to be merily disposed, fell a hooting and hollowing after a very extravagant rate, sometimes hissing; sometimes snapping, and (I know not what joyful crochet got into his noddle) then fell to a loud hooping; the men that before thresht in fear, were now scared out of their wits, 'twas enough for them they saw a blackish thing with a broad glouring Countenance, sitting on a Beam, hooting at them, which made them thus betake themselves to their heels, each of them bidding the Devil take the hindmost.

From John Oldham, Tom Tell-Troth, or, A Dialogue between the Devil and the Pope about Carrying on the Plot (1679[?]):

Devil. I am appeas'd.—Observe now what I say, / Till all obstructions lying in our way / Be beaten down, my Scepter cannot sway.

Pope. Name what they are, Sir, and the Devil take me / If I don't do't, unless my Imps forsake me, / Which I don't fear, for they have plighted troth / To be thy faithful drudges and mine both: / And no reserves shall serve, that they can mint; / If Devil cheat Devil, then the Devils in't:

...

Pope. Each man shall strive who shall burn and kill most, / And I will pray, the Devil take the hindmost.

This last instance is notable as showing that "The Devil take X" seems to have been a common locution in contemporaneous English apart from the particular expression "The Devil take the hindmost." In fact such usage is not hard to find in seventeenth-century sources. For example, from Robert Cotton & John Hayward, The Histories of the Lives and Raignes of Henry the Third, and Henry the Fourth, Kings of England (1642):

The King being somewhat moved at his act and answer, tooke the carving knife in his hand, & struck the Esquire therwith lightly on the head, saying, the devil take Henry of Lancaster & thee together:

The earliest match that a Google Books search finds for "Let [or 'may'] the devil take the hindmost" is from "A Letter of Thanks from the Author of the Comparison Between the Proposals of the Bank and the South-Sea, &c. to the Author of the Argument," in The Political State of Great Britain (March 1720):

I presume, you intend it should appear, at first View, that no Annuitants out of Bedlam will accept such an Offer; for, a Person of your Perspicuity cannot avoid seeing what every body else sees, viz. That the additional Rise of this Stock above the true Capital, will be only Imaginary; that One added to One, by ant Rules of Vulgar Arithmetick, will never make Three and a Half: and that consequently all the fictitious Value must be a Loss to some Persons or other, First or Last; that the only Way to prevent it to one's Self, must be to Sell out betimes, and so let the Devil take the hindmost: Nor can I see the least Reason to complain of the Injustice of such a Proceeding, because no Body can be cheated by it, but those who designed to cheat others.


Conclusion

The evidence gathered here strongly suggests that "The Devil take the hindmost"—and indeed, more generally, "The Devil take [someone or something]"—was a common expression in sixteenth-century England and did not require an opening "Let" or "May" to sound right to either the speaker or the hearer.

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