What Does the Devil Is in the Details Mean?

The devil is in the details… sounds ominous, doesn’t it? Indeed, this idiomatic and proverbial phrase does issue a warning. Heed it, however, and you may be able to avoid any “evil.” Keep reading to learn more.

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What Does the Devil Is in the Details Mean?

No doubt, from a young age your parents and teachers taught you to pay close attention to detail when completing your school assignments. Maybe before every exam they reminded you to read all of the instructions thoroughly, or they drilled it into your brain to always double-check your work. That’s essentially the lesson of this idiom and proverb: Details are important, so be conscientious and pay attention to the small things. 

The devil is in the details means that the particulars, even if they seem insignificant, can end up causing problems—that is, if they’re not taken into account. In other words, it warns that “evil” can hide in the minutiae or specifics, and thus cautions a person to carefully examine all aspects of a plan, situation, item, etc., including even its most minor details, in order to avoid unforeseen difficulties and issues. You’ve likely heard a similarly cautionary expression pertaining to documents, specifically legal contracts and agreements: Read the fine print

Here are some example sentences using the saying the devil is in the details:

  • When you’re negotiating the salary and benefits for your new role, make sure to ask lots of questions and wait for their answers so you can be sure to get what you truly want and need. After all, the devil is in the details. 
  • I knew I should have read over the lease agreement more carefully. It’s true when they say the devil is in the details: I’m not going to get my deposit back because I didn’t read the fine points of that section and see that I wasn’t allowed to paint the walls. 
  • We decided not to hire a wedding planner for our big day, but that turned out to be a huge mistake. We focused on the obvious things like decorating the outdoor venue perfectly, ordering great food, invitations, and our outfits, and we forgot to think about some of the smaller things like parking, which ended up being such a disaster. The devil is in the details, and we learned that the hard way.
  • I recently spent some of my savings on a designer handbag. Well, I thought it was a designer bag. Turns out, it was a fake. I know that the devil is in the details, so I looked it over, just not close enough in my excitement. I missed the two-color stitching inside and a very small off-brand tag in the bottom corner of the lining. 

Note that you may also see or hear the expression written with a contraction, as the devil’s in the details, or with detail singular, as the devil is in the detail.

The Origin of the Expression

The expression appears to have derived from the similar phrase God is in the detail. This earlier form is often attributed to the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Yet, while he may have been fond of the saying (in German, der liebe Gott steckt im detail), there’s little evidence that the German–American architect was in fact the very first person to use it; it might have been an existing German proverb. It is sometimes also credited to the German art historian Aby Warburg, while another earlier form—le bon Dieu est dans le détail, which translates to the good Lord is in the detail—is usually attributed to the French novelist Gustave Flaubert. All this is to say that, like many of the common phrases discussed here at The Word Counter, we can’t be entirely certain of the origin of the devil is in the details. 

We know, of course, that at some point the phrase evolved from containing God to the devil instead, and in so doing, the meaning of the expression changed slightly. God is in the detail simply expressed the idea that details matter, and that one should pay close attention or complete tasks thoroughly. The switch to devil shifted the saying to a warning that problems or difficulties can be hidden in the details, which is why one should carefully examine what is in front of them or the task or situation at hand.

Possibly the earliest citation of the phrase is in The Community of Europe from 1963, Richard Mayne’s explanation of the workings of the European Union.

Understanding Idioms and Proverbs

The devil is in the details is considered both an idiom and a proverb. An idiom is a figurative expression with an intended meaning that typically can’t be understood, or at least fully understood, just by looking at the individual words that comprise it. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

Try to take the devil is in the details literally, and you’d hit a snag. First off, whether you believe in the devil or not, there’s no denying that the supreme spirit of evil can’t actually physically be anywhere—unless hell, if you ascribe to that line of thought… and certainly not in details. The idiom uses another definition of devil, something trying or difficult, and has a figurative meaning: that the details can often be tricky or problematic, so they should be paid careful attention to.

The well-known expression is also thought of as a proverb. A proverb is a short, common phrase or saying that imparts advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage, aphorism, and maxim. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:

Blood is thicker than water.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Don’t judge a book by its cover. 

Learn the meanings of many more idioms and proverbs here.

Summary

Put simply, the expression the devil is in the details reminds that the minutiae or specifics of something—be it a plan, situation, document, design, etc.—though they may seem minor, can end up causing major problems if they’re overlooked. Thus, it warns one to carefully examine the details.