"Chinaman's chance" in the news

Dennis R. Preston preston at MSU.EDU
Sun Aug 21 00:06:10 UTC 2005

Well, somewhat similar. To avoid theoretical squabbling, just let "S"
= strong and "W" = weak, OK?

cat in hell's chance
  S   W   S      S

Chinaman's chance
   S  W  W     S

The resulting rhythms are quite different.


>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

Dennis R. Preston
University Distinguished Professor
Department of English
15-C Morrill Hall
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824-1036
Phone: (517) 353-4736
Fax: (517) 453-3755
preston at msu.edu

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