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.

Larry
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