The slang term ‘the devil is in the details’ has a number of different senses, all of which boil down to the fact that it is often the small details of something which make it difficult or challenging. These details can prolong a task, or foil an otherwise straightforward dealing. Like many proverbs which involve the devil, it’s meant to sound a note of caution.
The phrase is used in one sense to refer to very small but ultimately important components of a larger task. For example, performing a scientific experiment in a laboratory is a hugely involved task which can sometimes be dangerous. A small error at the beginning can translate into a useless experiment at the end, so experimenters know that the devil is in the details.
It’s used in another sense for a contract or agreement. The agreement may look reasonable at first glance, but a closer reading of the terms reveals a problem. People who routinely sign agreements learn to look for snags which might ultimately make the deal untenable.
The idiom can also refer to a catch or mysterious element hidden in the details, and derives from the earlier phrase ‘God is in the detail,’ which expresses the idea that a task should be done thoroughly. Details are important.
The idiom ‘God is in the detail’ has been attributed to a number of different individuals, but Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations lists the author as Anonymous.
More recently, the expressions ‘Governing (is) in the Detail(s)’ and ‘(The) Truth (is) in the Detail(s)’ have appeared. A further variation on the theme is the expression ‘Retail is detail.’
This phrase reminds me of the old English adage, ‘take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves.’ Same principle, right? Take care of the details and the larger task will be successfully completed.
Perhaps the reason my eye caught this particular phrase today is that it perfectly describes what I’m doing at the moment — formatting a book for both web and print. A book, either paper or pixels, is something you pick up and read for the story. But getting the manuscript into that readable form involves a lot of details. Checking the spelling and grammar is one thing, but there are also: margins, page size, page numbering, headers, font and styles. And I’m working with three different word processors. Excuse me while I go brew another mug of jet fuel!