"Chinaman's chance" in the news

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Sat Aug 20 23:52:40 UTC 2005

On Sat, 20 Aug 2005 19:13:04 -0400, Douglas G. Wilson wrote:

>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 it could be related to various other things not having a chance (in
hell). "Snowball's..." is the only one still in common use, but there has
also been "cat (in hell)'s chance" (from 1792 in OED), "dog's chance"
(from 1902, based on the earlier "dog-chance"?), and the Australianism
"Buckley's chance" (from 1898). I see a vague similarity between "cat in
hell" and "Chinaman" -- at least they have a similar stress pattern.

--Ben Zimmer

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