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Pull devil, pull baker

Q From Steve Moore: I recently read a 1934 book on speedway called Thrilling the Million. In it is the phrase pull devil, pull baker that I’d never encountered before. It seems to imply a contest in which the leader is constantly changing. Have you come across it before, and if so can you tell me why the unlikely combination of devil and baker?

A Like you, I’ve no memory of having heard it before. My references show its heyday was the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and that it has now almost totally fallen out of use. It usually refers to a closely fought see-sawing contest between two individuals or groups that almost resembles a tug-of-war:

The result is a succession of duels of competitive greed between the nationalized industries and public service, “pull devil, pull baker” industrial disputes, from which their trade-union-organized employees invariably emerge with ever higher nominal wages.

Illustrated London News, 30 Apr. 1983.

The source is an old fable, a moral tale warning against the perils of greed, featuring a crooked baker and his struggle with the devil. From the middle of the eighteenth century it was commonly retold as a magic lantern show in fairs. A contributor to Notes and Queries in March 1857 remembered it like this:

The first scene is the baker’s oven; the second, the baker detected in making short weight; in the third the devil comes and carries off the baker’s bread and bag of ill-gotten wealth; then comes the fourth, in which the baker, in pursuit of his treasure, overtakes the devil, and grasping him tightly by the tail, it is “pull Devil, pull Baker,” backwards and forwards, till the baker is pulled off the scene, and, in the next, appears packed in his own basket and strapped on the devil’s back, carried rapidly forwards to the fearful end of his career.

The earliest reference is this one:

He dances punch inimitably, spreads out a feather, and flashes his magic lightning, or knocks down a poor dog, to the great diversion of all present; or opens his magic lanthorn and gives you pull baker, pull devil, in their gaudiest colours.

The Experimentalist, or Modern Philosopher, from the Universal Museum, reprinted in The Beauties of all the Magazines Selected for the year 1764, by George Alexander Stevens, 1764.

There are several versions of the catchphrase, some mentioning a parson, a tailor or Punch instead of a baker. It’s also recorded as pull dog, pull devil. The references suggest that its moral has been interpreted in different ways. Brewer’s Phrase and Fable in 1894 defined it as meaning “Lie, cheat, and wrangle away, for one is as bad as the other.” In Slang and Its Analogues in 1891 Farmer and Henley preferred “To contend with varying fortunes.” The Oxford English Dictionary records that it was a catchphrase “formerly used to incite two persons or parties to greater efforts in a contest for the possession of something.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 13 Apr. 2013

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 13 April 2013.