Word Court

S God is in the details. I've also seen the thought expressed as The devil is in the details. For example, today on page one of The Washington Post, Sandy Berger, of the National Security Council, is quoted as saying that "the devil's in the details here" with regard to the deployment of a United Nations force to East Timor. I suppose one could argue either case, but which is correct?

John F. Belz

Leaving theological issues aside, with an expression like this what is "correct" is a matter of whether one version came into being as a garble of the other. Possibly this has happened here -- but no one seems to know which version came first. Neither God is in the details nor The devil is in the details has a clear provenance. Though the former is occasionally seen attributed to Albert Einstein, Gustave Flaubert, and Friedrich Nietzsche, among others, the architect Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe most often receives credit. Evidently Mies did say it, but he was not the first, and the latest edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (1992) calls the expression simply "a saying."

does not list The devil is in the details. Other sources name various personages as the popularizer, if not the coiner, of this version, but the range of them is narrower and more political -- for example, the diplomat Paul Nitze, Ronald Reagan, and Ross Perot. A decade ago both versions of the saying were relatively rare, and neither was particularly more common than the other. Around 1992 -- the year Perot began to be widely quoted, during his first run for the presidency -- the devil began pulling out ahead of God in popularity. In February of 1993 Perot complained that the devil was in the details of an economic plan of President Clinton's, and he made headlines; others' use of the devil version of the saying has been on the rise ever since. By last year major U.S. newspapers and broadcast-news sources were invoking the devil in this phrase anywhere from about twice as often as God to some twenty-five times as often.

I "How may I help you?" That evening I heard the same question from a telephone operator in an ad for a major credit card. I can tell you how you can help me or that you may help me pure and simple. As to how you may help me, I'm really at a loss for words. To my ear, the phrase just sounds dumb.

Given the number of interactive situations between service employees and the public (stores, call centers, government agencies), How may I help you? may be the most ubiquitous linguistic error in English-speaking North America.

Jackie Seaton

Although most of us were taught that can refers to ability to do something, and may to permission, the two words have always overlapped somewhat, particularly in informal speech and in negative constructions, mayn't being clumsy to say. Time was, however, the overlap that curmudgeons complained about was the informal use of can -- in, for example, "Can I help you?" (to which a curmudgeonly response would be "How should I know whether you can? All the same, please try"). Honestly, I think the problem with How may I help you? (which means "What manner of help do I have your permission to offer?") is that it's redundantly polite, a quality I just can't bring myself to object to.

I Anglo America. So why do we keep using the term Latin America? Isn't it blatantly racist and inaccurate? I tried to think of other cases in which ethnicity is used to describe (in modern English) what is supposed to be a geographic location, but I couldn't find any.

Julio Rodriguez

In fact whole wide swaths of the world were long ago named after the people who had settled them. You're right that this hasn't happened much lately -- though the Slavic countries may be another example. These terms aren't racist, only socially descriptive in a way that, say, South America is not. Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe, for example, are invariably considered Latin; whether the term covers Belize and Guyana (on the mainland but English-speaking) is now a matter of debate. Latin America originally designated the southerly portion of the American continents and the nearby islands where the primary official languages were derived from Latin. Just don't ask me why Quebec was never included.

Barbara Wallraff is a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly magazine.

Illustrations by Melinda Beck.

The Atlantic Monthly; January 2000; Word Court - 00.01; Volume 285, No. 1; page 132.