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I’ve read this in older books, and I get the impression that it means “not at all”, but the construction doesn’t make sense. Am I right as to the meaning? And how should I interpret the form?

Here’s one usage:

And that’s the reason why, if a man speaks his mind too freely against the gospel according to Saint Mat Thew, the Devil-a-bit does Mat care about it.

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Needs context... –  Daniel Roseman Jul 26 '11 at 12:23
    
I've heard it in British English, used to mean something was withheld. "Gruel we got aplenty, but devil a bit of meat did they give us for breakfast." Meaning "We got lots of gruel and no meat." –  Robusto Jul 26 '11 at 13:06
    
You could compare damn all (and various less polite versions), which mean the same, appear to have the same origin/construction, and are still in use (at least in England) –  TimLymington Jul 26 '11 at 13:24
    
@TimLymington: And damn sight better/worse than, where damn intensifies/augments. As opposed to damn all where it 'minimises/negates', such inversion of meaning being a common characteristic of slang usage. –  FumbleFingers Jul 26 '11 at 13:33
    
@Fumble: I think (without authority) that's misleading. Damn sight better = hell of a lot better or even bloody better. Damn all or devil a bit must have a separate origin (probably theological, I'd guess), or else why does fuck all = fucking nothing? –  TimLymington Jul 26 '11 at 15:45
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5 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

It seems that this is a slang saying from Dublin, Ireland. It means "nothing at all". You may read the whole thread for the relevant discussion.

Eric Partridge has "devil a bit" in his Dictionary of Slang and says:

devil a bit (says Punch), the
A firm though jocular negative: colloquial: circa 1850-1910. Without says Punch it goes back to earlyish 17th century: Pepys uses it thus on 3 April 1668.

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Here's a definition from Chambers dictionary not at all, not one etc –  JoseK Jul 26 '11 at 12:44
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"Divil the bit" & less commonly “divil a bit" is an Irish English idiom meaning none at all.

"Devil a bit" sounds like an anglicised version. Punch is a reference for Irish English the way Tom & Jerry is a reference for African-American English.

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+1 for "Punch is a reference for Irish English". I didn't know that - thanks! –  FumbleFingers Jul 26 '11 at 15:54
    
@Thaddy: you missed a perfect opportunity to say 'Devil a bit is Punch a reference for Irish English'. –  TimLymington Jul 27 '11 at 9:59
    
I saw the title of this question and thought, "That's wrong. It should be Divil a bit, not Devil a bit. Definitely. I'd not heard Divil the bit before. +1. –  TRiG Aug 7 '11 at 17:49
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In my beginning Irish class tonight, we learned a little question and answer:

Q. Cén scéal agat? (Sounds like "ken scale agat."): What's the story? (Scéal is story. Literally it would be something like "What story at you?")

A1. Scéal ar bith. (Sounds like "shkale air bih."): Nothing. ("story" / "any at all.") I wondered if in some regions the T is pronounced so it sounds like "bit"?

A2. Dheamhan scéal. (sounds like "yow-wen shkale."): Demon/devil story, i.e., nothing.

The combination made me wonder if the OTHER word for devil was used ("diabhal," which sounds like "divil") and if this was the source of the old expression "devil a bit".

"Divil air bi(t)" would be glossed into or understood as "divil a bit."

I have to agree that English dictionaries and scholars are a little distressingly Anglocentric. After 1000+ years of intermingling, it's hard to say for sure where the words came from. Slang tends to come from the underclasses and Irish seems more expressive, so my intuitive feeling (it being very late and me being fried), is that it's Irish.

Also, I wonder if people are picking up that what they were reading was written to sound like Irish dialect?

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This is more of a compilation of comments than a full answer, but I hope it's useful nonetheless (and I can edit it later, which I can't do with a comment).

"Devil a bit" seems to be a specifically Irish phrase, which had a vogue in the 19th century, and then became obsolete as slang tends to. But it's part of a family of phrases (still extant) where the swearword comes first, as a means of emphasizing that the second part is not true. This includes "The hell you say!" (or similar), which John Wayne used in most of his films: "Like fuck I will", which I hear quite often (I may even have used it myself): and "There's damn-all chance of that". The problem with tracing the origin of this is that etymologists, particularly in the Victorian era, were less than happy to commit to print any word stronger than "the deuce"; feel free to add your own theory.

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It's still in fairly common usage ("divil a bit") in the northwest of Ireland, where I come from. –  Alan B Sep 15 '11 at 8:52
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'Divil' can also be used in other negations. An example in song would be As I roved out / The night visit (same song, two names) — which uses 'Divil the one'/'Divil the man' to mean no-one.

And will you come to me mammy's house
When the moon is shining clearly.
And will you come to me mammy's house
When the moon is shining clearly.
I'll open the door and I'll let you in
And divil the one will hear us.

So I went to her house in the middle of the night
When the moon was shining clarely.
So I went to her house in the middle of the night
When the moon was shining clarely.
She opened the door and she let me in
And divil the one did hear us.

There we lay till the break of the day
And divil the one did hear us
There we lay till the break of the day
And divil the one did hear us
She arose and put on her clothes
Saying "Darling, you must leave me."

It's a traditional song, not sure when it was written. Just to provide other contexts. I'd agree with others that it's still used in Ireland, but seen as archaic, so may be slightly tongue-in-cheek if people do use it.

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