Who Is The 'Devil's Advocate'?

With all the news about the papal conclave, Weekend Edition wonders: what's the story behind the phrase "devil's advocate"? Host Rachel Martin checks in with the Boston Globe's language columnist, Ben Zimmer.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

At the Vatican, the College of Cardinals is preparing for a papal conclave.

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MARTIN: Soon, the cardinals will close the door to the Sistine Chapel and elect a new pope.

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MARTIN: And if you read the novel "Angels and Demons" by Dan Brown, you might think this process involves something called the devil's advocate, a person who knows all the dark secrets about each candidate.

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BEN ZIMMER: Yeah. Dan Brown has kind of a fanciful view of what goes on in the Vatican.

MARTIN: Ben Zimmer knows a thing or two about this. He is the language columnist for the Boston Globe, and he wasted no words in setting me straight.

ZIMMER: There is no actual devil's advocate in the process of selecting a pope.

MARTIN: OK. So, if this word has no roots in Catholicism or the papal conclave, where in the world did it come from?

ZIMMER: Well, it does come from Catholicism, just not from the conclave. It comes from the process that the Vatican has for declaring someone a saint - the canonization process. This official was appointed to argue against a proposed canonization or a beatification; that's the step right before canonization. And in this position, the person was supposed to take a skeptical view about this candidate's saintliness, questioning were these really miracles that the candidate performed? You know, if you've read "Paradise Lost," you know that the devil is very good at arguing, very persuasive. I guess the idea then was that there should be a position advocating a negative view, even if it was unpopular, just so that something as important as sainthood can withstand any kind of skepticism.

MARTIN: Does this still happen?

ZIMMER: No. Actually, the position of devil's advocate was abolished by Pope John Paul II in 1983. This was part of streamlining the whole canonization process. They still have a procedure for presenting opposing views. For instance, Christopher Hitchens was brought in to testify when Mother Teresa was being beatified in 2002. But there's no formal position of a devil's advocate anymore in the Vatican.

MARTIN: So, obviously, this is a phrase that we now hear it everywhere. It's ubiquitous in common usage. How does that happen? You're someone who studies words and how they permeate our popular culture. What was the tipping point?

ZIMMER: It was a gradual process, I think. That Latin expression, advocatus diaboli, was translated into English as devil's advocate - that's what it means. And then starting in the 18th century, I think people were just so interested in this expression and what it represented that they started using it in a more general way and a more secular way. You take an opposing position in a debate just for the sake of argument. You don't have to necessarily believe the position, but you still think that objections to an argument should be raised anyway.

MARTIN: Ben Zimmer of the Boston Globe. Ben, thanks so much.

ZIMMER: Thank you.

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MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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