Idle Hands Are the Devil's Tools (Origin)

by Craig Shrives

What Is the Origin of the Saying "Idle Hands Are the Devil's Tools"?

The term "idle hands are the devil's tools" means a bored person is more likely to find mischief. (This saying is also seen as "idle hands are the devil's workshop" or "idle hands are the devil's playground.")
Idle Hands Are the Devil's Tools (Origin)

Examples of Use:

  • The unemployed youngsters who hang around the park have robbed the corner shop again. Idle hands are the devil's tools.
  • We need to find something for Jennifer to do while we're at your mother's. Idle hands are the devil's workshop, and I don't want another lecture off your mum.
  • So, you've spent your whole day off eating biscuits! You know what they say. Idle hands....
  • (Often the saying is truncated. The listener is expected to know the rest of the proverb.)
This proverb originates from the Bible (Book of Proverbs, Chapter 16, Verse 27), but the words we use today are a distant translation from the early versions.
  • An ungodly man diggeth up evil (King James version, 1611)
  • Fac et aliquid operis, ut semper te diabolus inveniat occupatum (writings of St. Jerome form the 4th century)
  • (This translates as "Engage in some occupation, so that the devil may always find you busy." It is assumed that St. Jerome took this from Proverbs 16:27.)
In 1971, The Living Bible's translation of Proverbs 16:27 is the earliest version that closely matches today's wording:
  • Idle hands are the devil's workshop
  • (The literal translation in the The Living Bible is given as "A worthless man devises mischief.")
The popularity of the idea behind this proverb is credited to Geoffrey Chaucer for the following line in his 1380 novel "Canterbury Tales: The Tale of Melibeus":
  • "For Solomon says that idleness teaches a man to do many evil things."
  • (According to the Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament, Solomon was a fabulously wealthy and wise monarch of the United Kingdom of Israel.)
The proverb is used to explain why unsupported, unemployed people might turn to crime or why bored children will devise mischievous activities. It is essentially a warning to ensure everybody is suitably employed or entertained, or suffer the consequences.

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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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