If Zombies Chase Us, I’m Tripping You….May 30, 2011
The Devil Take the Hindmost
A proverbial phrase indicating that those who lag behind will receive no aid.
The line was first recorded in print in Beaumont and Fletcher’s tragic/comic play Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding, 1611:
“They run all away, and cry, ‘the devil take the hindmost’.”
The expression was known colloquially prior to that though. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations lists “Every man for himself and the Devil take the hindmost” as an ‘early 16th century’ proverb.
A typical use might be in: “It’s every man for himself, and the Devil take the hindmost.” Hindmost means, of course, the last in line. If you’re in a line being chased by the Devil, then the one he’s going to catch is going to be the last in line. It’s a way of saying, “Don’t be slow, because no one is going to stay behind and save you!” The expression dates from at least 1611 (OED Online). SS
It may have been a common way of expressing the military order to run away.
A ‘retreat’ is supposed to be a repositioning rearwards in good order, whereas the expression ‘every man for himself’ gives permission for the unit under command to run away as best they can – a ‘rout’ – a command that would be most likely given when faced with overwealmingly superior forces, eg lightly-armed infantry facing cavalry (prior to the use of a square, unable to form square or without the weapons needed to defend a square).
the addition of ‘and let the Devil take the hindmost’ is giving emphasis to the consequence of not running away quickly enough. if one took the common soldiers’ view that they were ‘the damned’ then saying that the devil would take them the emphasis was simply that they would lose their lives if they were at the back. this would be particularly true if infantry were being pursued by cavalry, who had little hesitation of riding down fleeing men.