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What Does It Mean to Live a "Devil-May-Care" Life?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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When English speakers talk about someone having a “devil-may-care” life or lifestyle, they are referring to the idea of being uncaring or generally willing to take risks. This idiomatic phrase is used in different ways; for example, someone might be said to have a “devil-may-care” attitude or outlook on life. People may even refer to “devil-may-care” professions like that of a professional stuntsman.

The phrase “devil-may-care” seems to have originated around the 1800s. Other common phrases of that time also featured the word “devil,” which in some English speaking cultures and communities represents one of many demonic entities, and in others, is used with a capital letter to indicate the primary “Devil” of Judeochristian religion. The phrase also mirrors others in societies speaking other languages, for example, in German, where the use of the word “Teufel” or “Topfel” features prominently in many idiomatic phrases.

As for the origin and meaning of “devil-may-care,” it seems that the phrase stands as a sort of general antithesis to the speaker’s own outlook. Here, the phrase may have originated as part of a longer phrase; some cite examples like “The devil may care; I certainly don’t.” The phrase is also similar to another that uses a rather similar idea: when English speakers say “devil take the hindmost,” the idea is that no one wants to be last. For example, when someone says “They took to the street, away from the scene of the fire, devil take the hindmost,” the idea is that everyone ran away quickly, not wanting to be left behind.

In some cases, the use of “devil-may-care” may relate to the idea of “devilish” or “impish” glee. This sort of phrase describes someone with a sly or slightly malevolent streak to their humor. Usually, it does not mean that the subject is actually evil or about to do evil things. Rather, devilish or impish glee is generally recognized as a mischievous yet playful demeanor.

The use of phrases like “devil-may-care” shows how obsessed past English speaking cultures were with the idea of a devil. Dozens of idioms exist in the English language featuring this persona. and all that its collective image entails. Phrases like “devil take you” or “to the devil” mostly achieved prominence in earlier centuries, where modern English speakers are less likely to invoke this type of character reference.

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Discussion Comments
By KoiwiGal — On Oct 13, 2014

@umbra21 - I don't think that mountain climbers really count most of the time as living a devil-may-care life. They are usually very precise and careful about the risks they take.

My impression of this phrase is that it applies to people who take spontaneous risks all the time, like people who race at red lights and go diving off cliffs and sleep with strangers and travel to other countries on a whim.

There are plenty of activities that are risky but you can cut down the risk with planning and training. I don't think that people who indulge in those kinds of activities (or even work at them professionally) should be called devil-may-care even if they appear to be to the outside world.

By umbra21 — On Oct 13, 2014

@Fa5t3r - In some people they might be. I think it depends on what drives the person to take risks. I've read a lot about mountain climbers and they are often family orientated people who just need to work on this one separate thing as a means of achieving their goals.

They can be very empathetic, and still take risks that others might not think of as acceptable.

By Fa5t3r — On Oct 12, 2014

I realized while I was reading this article that there probably is a link between the attitudes of the two different kinds of people the phrase devil-may-care refers to. I've always thought of it as something you would apply to a daredevil or someone who takes a lot of risks, but I know it can also be applied to someone who doesn't have a lot of empathy for others.

Not to put down people who take a lot of risks, but if you're a daredevil then you probably aren't giving that much consideration to the people you might be leaving behind (if, indeed, you have any who would care) so I guess the two things are related.

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