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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.

5 comments to Left to one’s own devices

  • Rosie Perera

    You’re overlooking the most common and straightforward meaning of the phrase “to leave someone to their own devices” — it is to leave them alone, without assistance, with only their own resources.

  • John Villar

    Although I haven’t found an official definition that supports my theory, I submit that the word “devices” in the phrase “left to his own devices” is actually a corruption of “devises.” The person has been left to whatever solution(s), procedure, etc. he can devise. Especially if the phrase originated in the 1800s, I would think it originally contemplated a much broader range of possibilities, beyond the use of devices.

  • Luis Resendis

    While word and phrase definitions change so much faster than the steady terms in Mathematics, for example, the key meaning of the phrase depends largely on the surrounding contents within which it is used. This can easily change from ‘mechanical’ like devises to ‘thoughtful’ devised/ ideas.

  • Jay Escobedo

    I know it has been years since this post, but I found myself searching about this quote which has been stated in various forms, often omitting the response. The straight forward meaning is “To leave someone to do what he/she is able to without being controlled or aided by someone.” This is the non philosophical/religious definition. The philosophical quote I’ve read by various sources dating back to the 1866 is, Man, if left to his own devices, would eat himself to death. This being a reflection of man’s desire to put himself before others to survive. So in searching to enrich himself, he will consume until he is dead, without regard to the wellness of others. Therefore many writers develop further on this to say that man should be a means within himself and should treat others in kind. So to say, that man should be value for being man, not for any external value he may bring himself or others.

    The religious proverb is “They shall eat the fruit of their own way, and be filled with (left to) their own devices.” Which is widely accepted to mean that what one plots against others, he shall be faced with himself. AKA that seed which one sows, one shall reap.

    This phrase has been in my head for a while since I began studying economics and the history of these great American pioneers who created the capitalistic society we now live in and the moral that goes with such power. Is it right to seek to enrich oneself if the opportunity arises, and no law or regulation prevents it, or should we seek to maximize the good done to the country, society, world, etc., as a whole. I know this is off topic, but it is a very powerful phrase that is well worth researching and finding our own meaning to.

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