Devil's Advocate (Origin)

by Craig Shrives

What Is the Origin of the Saying "Devil's Advocate"?

The term "devil's advocate" means a person who presents an opposing opinion to provoke debate or to test the strength of a proposition.
Devil's Advocate (Origin)

Examples of Use:

  • But, what will happen if the prosecution does have evidence? Sorry, I'm just playing Devil's advocate.
  • Let's meet to examine this theory thoroughly. We'll use Jack as a Devil's advocate.
  • I want to rehearse the press conference. Sue, please use your team as the Devil's advocate. I need challenging questions.
  • Run this plan past all the managers, including some playing Devil's advocate. We must do what we can to identify any issues before they occur.
The word "advocate" means a person who supports or champions another's cause. Therefore, the term "Devil's advocate" is a person who supports the Devil's cause or viewpoint. You might therefore be surprised to learn that "Devil's Advocate" (or Advocatus Diaboli in Latin) was an official position within the Catholic Church. The job of the Devil's Advocate was to argue against the canonization (the making of a saint) of a candidate in order to reveal any flaws or misrepresentations in the evidence supporting the case for canonization.

"Devil's advocate" originates from the Middle Ages. Nowadays, the term is commonly used in business and political settings, where it usually features in a phrase like "to play Devil's advocate." The task of someone playing Devil's advocate is to adopt a position that challenges the accepted norm, even if they personally agree with the accepted norm. The purpose of this is to initiate debate and to test theories and assumptions.

In less formal settings, you will often hear people saying something like "I'm just playing Devil's advocate" as a caveat before asking a question that might otherwise annoy. For example:
  • Jackie: I was surprised that none of the NASA delegation could remember Tony.
  • Anna: I'm just playing Devil's advocate here, but what if he wasn't an astronaut before you met him?

Capital Letters with "Devil's Advocate"

When referring to the position in the Catholic Church, the term is written with two capital letters ("Devil's Advocate") because it is the title of a position, i.e., a proper noun. When used to refer to an everyday challenger of a proposition, it is written with only one capital letter ("Devil's advocate") as only "Devil" is a proper noun.

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See Also

What are idioms? What is figurative language? A list of common grammar errors A list of easily confused words A list of sayings and proverbs

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