"Chinaman's chance" in the news

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Sun Aug 21 04:14:41 UTC 2005

On Sat, 20 Aug 2005 23:18:29 -0400, Douglas G. Wilson wrote:

>>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.
>That's how I see it. I assume "Chinaman" was stressed like "Englishman".
>But one might assume that "Chinaman" was stressed like "Java Man" ...
>with at least strong secondary stress on "man" ... giving SWSS for
>"Chinaman's chance". I doubt this myself but ....

Yes, I was assuming (without much justification) that a common
pronunciation of "Chinaman" in the late 19th century would have strong
secondary stress on "-man". At least the alternate spelling of "china-man"
suggests this as a possibility.

Well, if the prosodic similarity is a stretch, how about the semantics?
The first OED cite specifies that it's a cat *without claws* that doesn't
have much of a chance (in hell):

1796 GROSE Dict. Vulg. Tongue (ed. 3), No more chance than a cat in hell
without claws; said of one who enters into a dispute or quarrel with one
greatly above his match.

Since HDAS has the expression "play (someone) for a Chinaman" meaning 'to
treat as a fool', I wonder if the figure of the "Chinaman" was simply
thought of as a "clawless" target who could be easily duped, say, into
taking the most menial tasks on the frontier.

Another guess: could there be a connection to (Chinese-run) gambling
houses on the West Coast, where new Chinese immigrants might quickly lose
their money and/or become addicted to opium? Just thinking out loud...

--Ben Zimmer

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