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A portrait of Cao Cao by Wang Qi from the Sancai Tuhui.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Chinese Practice


(shuo1 cao2 cao1 cao2 cao1 dao4)

say his name, and Cao Cao will appear

片語「speak of the devil」,或者其較符合歷史的說法「talk of the devil」,實際上是用來警告別發生所說到的事。這是一句古諺語「talk of the devil and he doth appear」(說到魔鬼它就出現了)的前半部,而你並非真的希望魔鬼出現。跟許多諺語一樣,我們通常只說出前半段,後半段的意思就如同歇後語一樣是用暗示的。








(Speak his name, and Cao Cao will appear. Look who’s come to visit us.)


(We were just wondering whether you would come today to practice, and then you turn up.)


speak/ talk of the devil

[and the devil doth come]

The phrase “speak of the devil” or, more historically, “talk of the devil,” is actually an admonishment to do just the opposite. It is the first half of an old proverb whose original form was “talk of the devil and he doth appear,” and you really don’t want the devil to appear. As is the case with many proverbs, it is customary to just say the first half, the rest of the phrase being implied.

Nowadays, it is more likely to be used in a lighthearted manner, commenting on the sudden appearance of a person or thing when their name is mentioned. It was not originally used in this lighthearted way, however. The taboo of mentioning the name of the devil probably contributed to the wealth of alternative ways in which to refer to him, such as the “Prince of Darkness,” “Old Nick,” or “the Horned One.”

The first known printed use of the phrase in modern English is in Giovanni Torriano’s Piazza Universale (1666), which tells us, “The English say, Talk of the Devil, and he’s presently at your elbow.”

In Chinese, there is the phrase “speak his name, and Cao Cao will appear,” describing the idea that if you say someone’s name, that person will materialize. The origin of the phrase is acknowledged as being from a story in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The 14th chapter of the book relates how Emperor Xian of Han found himself surrounded during a battle with the rebel army, and one of his ministers advised that he call for the warlord Cao Cao to come to his aid. It turns out that Cao Cao had already dispatched a force to save the emperor, even without word having been sent, and in the end Emperor Xian was able to escape. The book portrays Cao Cao as an ambitious schemer, who had eyes everywhere: nothing could escape his notice. It was for this reason that he was able to appear anywhere his presence was needed, and just in the nick of time.

The actual phrase was not found in the Romance, however: it comes from the “novel of denunciation” Flower in a Sea of Sin written in the late Qing by Zeng Pu. In Chapter 29 there appears the phrase, 「無巧不成書!說到曹操,曹操就到」, meaning “What a curious coincidence. Speak his name, and Cao Cao appears.”

(Paul Cooper, Taipei Times)

Where did you just come from? We were just talking about you. Speak of the devil...


Let’s not talk about Mr Jones here, he might walk by. You know what it’s like: talk of the devil...

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