To Pull the Devil by the Tail or a Month of French Idioms From A to Z

Some letters in our alphabet offer more options in terms of expressions than others.  Choosing one for the letter du jour was a challenge.

Ultimately I didn’t go with Sans Tambour Ni Trompette, although it went really well the letter T. Without Drum nor Trumpet is the French version of Without Fanfare. Nice but too similar.


Last week a book at my local library caught my eye.


The title is a very visual English idiom, so I simply looked for its French equivalent, which sounds as visual to my French eye and yet a little more twisted.






Embed from Getty Images


As a child who loved stories I remember how much I learned when I listened to neighbors, merchants, and family members talk with my mother. Sometimes an expression struck my vivid imagination. This particularly visual expression was one of them.

For all French people Tirer le Diable par la Queue is used to illustrate financial difficulties leading to poverty.

One says that a poor person often ends up begging the devil for help, when all other options have been exhausted (and maybe pulling the tail to get the devil’s full attention?).

But according to Claude Duneton, my favorite French author when it comes to expressions and the French language in general, this meaning is fairly recent.

Before the 17th century, Tirer le Diable par la Queue meant to work humbly to make a living. There was no reference to financial stress and poverty.

Why then pulling the devil’s tail? Duneton himself doesn’t provide a definite explanation.

I will leave it that way, too, realizing that popular expressions don’t always need an exact explanation to remain explicit for a large group of people.

A to Z Challenge



See you tomorrow!


  1. Sisyphus47 says:

    Superbe! L’expression, le livre, la photo… Bien joué! 🙂

  2. Interesting challenge idea! Love the Notre Dame photo too – I remember those well.

  3. I have spent some time living hand to mouth. It’s interesting to think of it as pulling the devil’s tail. I do like the work humbly aspect as that’s what I was doing at the time. Or working humbly and going to college. You’re getting close to the end, but you’re doing a great job.

    • Me too, Dan. In France and the US! I also agree that the original meaning is a good one since it honors work in all its aspects. I’m glad to be on the last stretch of the road, although I will miss the once-a-day posting. Thank you again for your support.

  4. Love that photo!

    • I do too, Joey! I searched a lot for one I could use for this specific post. Have you been to Notre Dame? The view from the very top is just breathtaking. See you on your blog!

  5. Another great one Evelyne – awesome photograph too!

    • Everybody loves the photo and I agree that it’s a good one. Too bad I didn’t take it myself. I’ve climbed to the very top of Notre Dame but it was too breathtaking to even take a picture. Glad you like this post, Mary. Thank you for keeping up with this challenge. Almost there!

  6. That’s a good one! I would have thought it went with some of our “devil” sayings, like “when you dine with the Devil, use a long spoon.” But each one has its own traditional meaning. I would never have guessed at this one.

    • I didn’t know yours, Marilyn! I need to look up this devil and long spoon thing. Ours is not very explicit but I like it, probably because I’ve heard it enough to stop questionning its weirdness. That’s what idioms are after all. So deeply part of our culture that we can use them in proper context. Thank you for keeping me company for six more letters!

      • In the county of Fife, Scotland. the Scots say *It taks a lang spoon tae sup wi’ a Fifer.” or even “The de’il taks a lang spoon tae sup wi’ a Fifer. ” We like to think it means that the people from Fife are cunning/devious/canny enough to beat the devil –or anyone else–who’s out to trick them.
        This is a great A-Z challenge, very glad I found this blog. I always wanted to be French…shall keep returning to learn more.
        @AnneKnol1 from
        New Author Support – Tips on Writing and Promotion from A to Z

  7. Behind the Story says:

    This one is fascinating. I imagine a friend asking, “How are you doing?” And the person who’s living hand to mouth says, “Oh, I just trudge from place to place, pulling the devil by the tail.”

    • I like your take on this idiom, Nicki. I have myself pulled the devil by the tail and although I find the English equivalent easier to understand, the imagery of the French expression is excellent. Thank you so much for keeping up with me as we are getting closer to letter Z.

  8. I love this one because it’s shifts and shimmers and suggests different things, like so many “devil” expressions. “God’s in the details” and “The devil’s in the details” mean the exact same thing. The literal meaning of “tirer le diable par la queue” makes me think of “grabbing (or having) a tiger by the tail,” which isn’t the same thing but they’re both about holding the tail of something powerful and unpredictable. Hmm. And often, it seems, we grab the tail without realizing it’s attached to a tiger.

    • I agree on the significance of the tail in many idioms, Susanna. We also have in French The Snake that Bites its Own Tail, which is kind of It’s a Catch 22.
      Thankful for your company, Susanna, and for your pertinent comments.

  9. Love this one Evelyne, it’s very visual, a powerful image – it does hint at desperation.

  10. I always felt that this expression meant more that when you pull the devil’s tail, you are tempting fate, asking for trouble. Perhaps that’s what it meant when you were poor? Because if you didn’t work hard, you were giving the devil a chance at you…? Lisa, co-host AtoZ 2015, @

    • Could be, Lisa. Nobody seems to know how the expression started to imply poverty. So every interpretation is possible. I need to catch up with your blog soon, Lisa. When we are done with this challenge, definitely.

  11. Who knew? That photo is creepy!


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