Left to one’s own devices

Alone time, with beeps.

Dear Word Detective: I am curious about the phrase “left to his own devices,” which is often used to mean “left free to entertain himself.” It has the feel of a phrase which might pre-date smart phones and tablets, so what kinds of devices does the phrase refer to? — Steve Ford.

Better watch it, or you’re gonna get me started. Oops, too late. I think it was about the time that “smart phone” became “smartphone” that I decided the Luddites were right. So I’ve stepped off the slowly-moving Carousel of Technology (which hasn’t produced a genuinely new idea in at least ten years) and I’m planning to spend the duration sitting on a bench talking to pigeons. Yes, I have computers, plural, but they’re all pretty old, and our cell phone is the crude flip-phone kind you see in “The Wire” (2002). It lives in the glove compartment, and I think the battery is dead. Ask me if I care.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has a note on its entry for “device” explaining that the definition “has not yet been fully updated” since it was first published in 1895. So it’s not surprising that they don’t include the use of “device” to mean smartphones, tablets and those cute little Google Glasses people wear when they want to test their health insurance coverage. But that use of “device” to mean “an object, machine, or piece of equipment that has been made for some special purpose” (Merriam-Webster.com) is now clearly the primary one, probably followed in popularity by “device” meaning “an explosive or bomb” as in “nuclear device.” (The OED does include this definition in a 1977 addendum.) A “device” can also be a scheme, pretext or trick (“Larry asking me to fetch beer was just a device to get me out of the house”) or a “dramatic device,” a plot development (such as the classic “Evil Twin” in soap operas) introduced to spice up a movie, play or novel.

“Device,” which first appeared in English in the early 13th century, comes from the same Old French roots that gave us the verb “to devise” (to invent or plan), roots which in turn rest on the Latin verb “dividere,” to divide (also the source of our English “divide”). In Old French the sense was both “to divide” and “to plan,” which in English gave us “device” meaning “invention or plan.” It was also used to mean “wishes, desires or opinions.” The specific meaning of “machine or contrivance” didn’t arise until the 16th century.

To leave someone “to their own devices” is a fairly recent idiom, dating to the late 19th century (“What would you do, if left to your own devices?” 1870), and the original sense of “devices” in the phrase was simply “wishes” or “preferences.” But over time “device” in the phrase has drifted in the direction of the sense of “scheme, plan, plot or trick,” and today the implication of “to leave someone to their own devices” is that, if given the chance, the person will probably do something at least mildly sneaky.

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