fat chance

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Tue Nov 23 12:50:21 UTC 1999

At 12:16 AM -0500 11/23/99, Lynne Murphy wrote:
>Do any of you phrase-chaser-downers know the origin of the phrase "fat
>chance"?  I'm wondering if the original usage was ironic, since a "fat
>chance" is really a "slim chance" and since you can only seem to use it
>as an exclamation on its own--well at least according to my intuition.
>I wouldn't say "He had a fat chance of getting there."  I tried to do a
>quick web search for the phrase to see how others use it, but was
>inundated by diet sites and fat farms.
>Lynne, who likes antonyms rather too much

Pretty sure it was ironic ab initio. Steven Pinker discusses the "fat
chance" in the same section as "I could care less" in his chapter on the
Language Mavens in _The Language Instinct_ and proposes an ironic origin
for both.  This is a fairly productive pattern, as attested in e.g.

 A (fat) lot of good THAT ever did me.

where the negative character of the apparently positive quantifier is
supported by the negative polarity item it licenses.  I haven't done an
early cite search on "fat chance", though.

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