The Devil’s Advocate – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Have you ever tried to look at something for the opposing point of view? Perhaps you are serving as a neutral party during an arguments between others?

As any good lawyer knows, the devil’s advocate plays a crucial role in any legal argument, but it also applies to real life. But what does that mean, exactly?

The term is often used to describe someone who takes on the role of opposing a position to explore all sides of an issue.

Here’s a breakdown of the history and origin of the term and its current use.

Meaning

The phrase “the devil’s advocate” is used in everyday speech to describe someone who takes on the opposing side of an argument for the sake of debate. The job is to play the part of a skeptic and ask questions that may make the opposition look bad.

For example, if you’re trying to decide whether or not to buy a new car, your friend might play the devil’s advocate and list all of the reasons why you shouldn’t.

The role of the devil’s advocate is to be deliberately provocative and challenge assumptions. Doing so allows all sides of an issue to be explored and considered more carefully. The goal is to ensure that all options have been thoroughly explored.

The term can also be used more broadly to describe someone who is always skeptical or critical. For example, you might say that your boss is a devil’s advocate who never seems satisfied with anything.

Example Usage

“I know you’re trying to be helpful, but can you please stop playing devil’s advocate?”

“I wish she would stop being a devil’s advocate and just give her opinion.”

“Don’t worry; I’m just playing devil’s advocate. I agree with you.”

Origin

The phrase “the devil’s advocate” originates from a Catholic Church tradition. In the 15th century, Pope Leo X established the position of “advocatus diaboli,” which translates to “devil’s advocate.” This person was responsible for opposing the canonization, or sainthood, of individuals whom the Church had put forward.

The devil’s advocate would investigate the candidate’s life and find any evidence that might disprove their sanctity. Pope John Paul II abolished the position in 1983. He felt that it gave too much power to those opposing sainthood and that the process should be more streamlined.

The term “the devil’s advocate” has since been widely used and is no longer specific to the Catholic Church. It can be used in a situation where someone is taking on the role of opposing for the sake of debate.

Phrases Similar to The Devil’s Advocate

  • “Apologist” means someone who defends or supports a position, even if they don’t necessarily agree with it.
  • “Naysayer” is someone who habitually disagrees or expresses disapproval.
  • “Contrarian” describes someone who rejects a popular opinion
  • “Critic” is someone who offers judgments about the merits of something.
  • “Skeptic” is someone who questions the truth or validity of something.

Phrases opposite to The Devil’s Advocate

  • “Cheerleader” is someone who supports and encourages others.
  • “Yes-man” is someone who always agrees with those in authority.
  • “Sycophant” is a servile, fawning follower.

What is The Correct Saying?

  • The saying is “the devil’s advocate.” The phrase “devil’s advocacy” is a common misnomer.

Ways People May Incorrectly Say The Devil’s Advocate

  • The devils in the details – This phrase means that small, often overlooked details can ruin a plan or project. It has nothing to do with taking the opposite side of an argument.
  • When you play devil’s advocate, you are being negative or trying to make things worse.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase The Devil’s Advocate

  • I am going to play the devil’s advocate so that you guys can find an amenable resolution.
  • The best way to understand what really happened is by playing devil’s advocate during the fact finding mission.

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