Printer's devil

Printer's devil

A printer's devil was an apprentice in a printing establishment who performed a number of tasks, such as mixing tubs of ink and fetching type. A number of famous men served as printer's devils in their youth, including Ambrose Bierce, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Warren Harding, John Kellogg, Lyndon Johnson and Joseph Lyons.


The origin of "printer's devil" is not definitively known. Various competing theories of the phrase's origin follow.

"Printer's devil" has been ascribed to the fact that printer's apprentices would inevitably have parts of their skin stained black from contact with the ink involved in the printing process. As black was associated with the "black arts," the apprentice came to be called a devil.

Another origin is linked to the fanciful belief among printers that a special devil haunted every print-shop, performing mischief such as inverting type, misspelling words or removing entire lines of completed type. The apprentice became a substitute source of blame and came to be called a "printer's devil" by association.

A third source involves a business partner of Johann Gutenberg, John Fust, who sold several of Gutenberg's Bibles to King Louis XI of France and his court officials, representing the bibles as hand-copied manuscripts. When it was discovered that individual letters were identical in appearance, Fust was accused of witchcraft—the red ink text was said to have been written in blood, and Fust was imprisoned. Though Fust was later freed after the bibles' origins were revealed, many still believed he was in league with Satan, thus the phrase.

Another possible origin is ascribed to Aldus Manutius, a well known Venetian printer of the renaissance, and founder of the Aldine Press, who was denounced by detractors for practicing the black arts (early printing was long associated with devilry). The assistant to Manutius was a young boy of African descent who was accused of being the embodiment of Satan and dubbed the "printer's devil".

One likely source stems from the fact that worn-out and broken lead type is thrown into a hellbox, which the printer's devil has the task of sorting out and wheeling into the furnace for smelting down and recasting.

Finally, English tradition links the origin of "printer's devil" to the assistant of the first English printer and book publisher, William Caxton. Caxton's assistant was named "Deville" which naturally evolved to "devil" over time, as that name was used to describe other printers' apprentices.


* (2002). [ Printer's Devil] . Retrieved December 25, 2005.
*Frank Granger (1997). [ The Printer's Devil] . Retrieved December 25, 2005.
*Rev. E. Cobham Brewer, LL.D. (year unlisted). [ Character Sketches of Romance, Fiction and the Drama] . Retrieved December 25, 2005.
*Pubs and Breweries of the Midlands: Past and Present (year unlisted) [ The Printer's Devil] . Retrieved December 25, 2005.

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Printer's devil — Devil Dev il, n. [AS. de[ o]fol, de[ o]ful; akin to G. ?eufel, Goth. diaba[ u]lus; all fr. L. diabolus the devil, Gr. ? the devil, the slanderer, fr. ? to slander, calumniate, orig., to throw across; ? across + ? to throw, let fall, fall; cf. Skr …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Printer's devil — Printer Print er, n. One who prints; especially, one who prints books, newspapers, engravings, etc., a compositor; a typesetter; a pressman. [1913 Webster] {Printer s devil}, {Printer s gauge}. See under {Devil}, and {Gauge}. {Printer s ink}. See …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • printer's devil — n. an apprentice in a print shop …   English World dictionary

  • Printer's Devil — Infobox Television episode Title = Printer s Devil Series = The Twilight Zone Caption = Scene from Printer s Devil Season = 4 Episode = 111 Airdate = February 28, 1963 Production = 4864 Writer = Charles Beaumont (Based on his story “The Devil,… …   Wikipedia

  • printer's devil — devil (def. 5). [1755 65] * * * …   Universalium

  • printer's devil — noun An apprentice printer …   Wiktionary

  • printer's devil — print′er s dev′il n. pri devil 5) • Etymology: 1755–65 …   From formal English to slang

  • printer's devil — /prɪntəz ˈdɛvəl/ (say printuhz devuhl) noun → devil (def. 7) …  

  • printer's devil — noun Date: 1757 an apprentice in a printing office …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • printer's devil — young apprentice in a printing company …   English contemporary dictionary

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