Billy, in his youthful days, was the best hand at doing nothing in all Europe; devil a mortal could come next or near him at idleness; and, in consequence of his great practice that way, you may be sure that if any man could make a fortune by it he would have done it.

It's a part of 'The Three wishes" by William Carleton. (Irish Fairy and Folk Tales by W.B. Yeats)

I simply can't figure out the above 'devil a mortal' in terms of meaning and grammar.

Please help me.

  • 6
    I think this question may be related, and hopefully helpful: What does “devil a bit” mean? One answer there says that that "Divil the man" can mean "nobody."
    – herisson
    Commented May 8, 2016 at 6:35

3 Answers 3


Since Carleton (who was living Ireland in the 19th century) was presumably using Hiberno-English, the following dictionary reference may be applicable:

equivalent to a negative in such idioms as
'devil a one' (< Ir diabhal duine), not one,
'devil a bit' (< diabhal e) , not a bit

From A Dictionary of Hiberno-English: The Irish Use of English


Devil a mortal means 'not a single mortal [human]'.

Devil a bit, a one, a thing etc means 'not one, none at all etc'. It is an fashioned English/Irish idiom. It is a firm though jocular negative dating from at least the the early 17th century: Pepys uses it thus on 3 April 1668.

What does "devil a bit" mean?


I have no reference to give, but I take it to mean "If the very Devil himself took on mortal form, he might be Billy's near equal at being idle". One might expect such hyperbole in a folk tale such as the one you quote

The notion that the devil might epitomize idleness probably stems from the notion of Sloth being one of the Seven Deadly Sins, which an Irish author and his audience would be very familiar with.

  • Neat idea, but not what this actually means. Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 18:56

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