fat chance

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Fri Nov 26 16:10:13 UTC 1999

>Barry Popik actually answered my query privately and directed me to the
>RHDAS, which confirmed my suspicion that "fat chance" is historically
>sarcastic.  "Slim chance" precedes it.
>>From: "Alexey I. Fuchs" <c0654038 at TECHST02.TECHNION.AC.IL>
>>Subject: Re: fat chance
>>Date: Thu, Nov 25, 1999, 1:27 PM
>>        I would suppose that adding "fat" before chance to indicate that
>>the chance is small (whereas "fat" is intuitively associated with "big")
>>could be done to show that the chance is especially easy to escape. In
>>wrestling, as far as I know, putting fat on one's body is an illegal move
>>made to the end of slipping out of the rival's grip. Seems like a very
>>narrow usage, but there are idioms in different languages where "fat" is
>>related to the idea of escaping or slipping away.
>>                                                        Alexey

Yes, I'm afraid my intuitions go with Lynne and Barry here, much as I
appreciate the image of folks pursued by but easily outdistancing those
overweight chances waddling after them.  The image does get a bit fuzzier
when you remember that the chances you're trying to escape from are ones
you want to be caught by:

        Fat chance the 49ers will make the playoffs.
        ??Fat chance the Colts will lose the rest of their games.

(That is, the "fat chance" is the one you wish would come to fruition.)
And it's not just those obese chances that are waddling along, it's also
those metabolically challenged lots of good ("A fat lot of good THAT'll
do").  Positive intensifiers are used in English in a wide range of
constructions with sarcastic or ironic effect, and this is just one of many
such.  Among the others:

        He's a real genius.    [esp. with sarcastic nasalization] =
                                'He's a total idiot'
        What a brilliant/great move.
        You're a great help.   NOT!
(the Retro-NOT, discussed here extensively a few years ago)
        You're a great help, I DON'T think.
(cf. OED on THINK, III.9.b. "used after an ironical statement to
indicate that the reverse is intended")

Most of the attested cites for these retroactively-cancelling negatives
(see Sheidlower & Lighter on Retro-NOT in Am. Speech 1993) involve an
emotive positive intensifier ("great", "fine", "brilliant", "nice") in the
ironic utterance, analogous to our "fat chance".

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