"Chinaman's chance" in the news

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Sat Aug 20 23:13:04 UTC 2005

>Is there evidence to back up any of these conjectures?

I don't know of any, can't find any on quick look-around.

I see "Chinaman's chance" used in the modern way from 1897.

I don't see any obvious precursor. It is also interesting that I don't see
any early alternative formations: no "Chink's chance", no "Chinese chance",
no "Celestial's chance", no "he doesn't have even the chance of a Chinaman"
or "my chances are at the Chinese level", etc. (some of these were used
much later however). Also no comparable expression referring to other
ethnic groups or nationalities.

It would seem that the expression was probably favored by its rhythm and
alliteration, which of course brings up the possibility that the "Chinaman"
meant nothing at all originally. For example, just as one can speculate
that "ball of wax" originated as an intentional malapropism not having any
real reference to wax, or that "Heavens to Betsy" did not originally refer
to anyone or anything named Betsy at all, it is possible that "Chinaman's"
was a distortion of something else originally. One tentative candidate:
"Chinaman's chance" < "Time and chance", which was sometimes used in the
19th century where "chance" alone might be used today (this word-group is
also familiar from a popular Biblical passage, I think).

Or maybe the expression really did originate on the railroad or at the mine.

-- Doug Wilson

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