Devilled (food)

Get thee behind me, weird food.

Dear Word Detective: Where does the cooking term “devilled” come from? My wife was talking about “devilled eggs” or “devilled ham” or something, and my curiosity has gotten to me. — Casey Franklin.

That’s a good question, and one I thought I answered a few years ago, but apparently not. What I was thinking of was a sudden spate, back then, of what I called “hidden evil secret stories of words” questions. One reader reported being told not to use the word “luck” because it is supposedly derived from “Lucifer,” which it isn’t. There is no connection whatsoever. Another reader noted that, back in 1997, a county in Texas had adopted “Heaven-O” as their official greeting on the theory that “hello” has some connection to “Hell,” which it doesn’t. That led me to wonder if they would also ban devilled eggs (often made with Hellman’s mayonnaise, after all). That would definitely put a dent in picnics.

The “evil etymology” questions have dwindled in the past few years, but “devilled” (or “deviled,” your choice) eggs and ham endure. “Devil” itself is an interesting word. Our English “devil” began as the Old English “deofol,” from the Greek “diabolos,” meaning “slanderer, accuser” (from “diabellein,” to throw or cast). While in early Jewish and Christian use “diabolos” meant specifically Satan, it could also denote a lower-level demon or evil spirit, or simply a diabolical person. “Devil” has also been used to mean both “lowly assistant” (as in “printer’s devil,” an errand boy in a type-shop) and machines that tear or mangle materials (such as flax or cotton). And, of course, “devil” has long been used for the “charming rogue” male character from Clark Gable to George Clooney, as well as, conversely, a luckless schmuck (“poor devil”).

As a verb, “to devil” originally meant “to act like the devil,” or to torment someone, a sense that also survives in the verb “to bedevil.” One can also, in the “assistant” sense of the noun, “devil” for an employer for long hours but little or no pay.

But the relevant sense of the verb “to devil” that we find in “devilled” is “to grill or prepare with hot condiments or spices,” a 19th-century metaphorical tribute to the supposed broiling environment of Hell. In the case of devilled eggs, “devilling” involves removing the yolk of a hard-boiled egg sliced in half, mixing it with mayonnaise, mustard and other spices, and putting it back in the egg. Devilled ham is a sandwich spread made of ground ham and various spicy seasonings. The original (and most popular) brand of devilled ham in the US is made by Underwood, which features a bright red devil as its logo.

So “devilled” foods don’t actually have any connection to Satan beyond the somewhat hyperbolic connotation of Hades-level hotness. But just the name alone is apparently too much for some folks. According to Wikipedia (as well as actual people I know), devilled eggs are known in much of the US South and Midwest as “stuffed eggs,” “salad eggs,” “dressed eggs” and, inevitably, “angel eggs.” I’m just glad I don’t have to explain that one to some little kid at a picnic (“Yes, angels have wings, but I don’t think they lay eggs”).

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