Life has a way of narrowing down your options. When they’re reduced to two equally undesirable and dangerous alternatives, you’re said to be between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Though the situation reeks of evil, it actually has little to do with Satan or his environs. Its origins instead can be found at sea. In the days of the clipper ship, sailors were often ordered to do repair work on the seam in the hull which was on or below the water line. Its location made work there extremely difficult and hazardous; sailors who were ordered to do so, often referring to it as a “devil of a task.” After having been said enough times, “devil” came to name the seam itself, leaving the tars (who got their name from the substance with which they worked) between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Not knowing what dangers lay ahead, there could be all hell to pay—serious repercussions arising from the job. Closer examination shows it to be nothing more than that devilish seam again. The original phrase was “the devil to pay and hot pitch,” pitch being the sticky tar used for water-proofing and caulking with which they were “paying” or waterproofing the area.
The job was pure hell. So when this lengthy phrase became all-purpose, we pared it down to all hell to pay.
“What in tarnation are we talking about?” you might ask. It’s only a mild expletive for “damn,” “hell,” or the “devil”—probably a variation of “darnation” (“darn” being a euphemism for “damn”)—though a case might also be made linking it to the cursing of the aforementioned tars. Having a devilish time with your own bad choices? Sticky as they may be, things are never quite as bad as they seam 🙂