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When you say 'jackpot,' would you normally refer to it as

  1. something that you should be happy about, or
  2. something that you can very highly unlikely obtain?

I find this use of 'jackpot' hard to understand in the following. (If 'I' said it with reference to (2), it might very well let Jack down ....) (I'm a non-native speaker. If you would explain it in some plain English, I would very much appreciate it.)

"I went to have chemo yesterday morning, and they did some blood work, and I have some numbers that aren't good," he said. "They have to be higher for me to be able to start chemo again."

"What does it mean?" I said.

"Nothing good," he said.

"Does it mean they can't try anymore?" I said.

"There's this shot can give me," he said. "Sort of a booster shot for my blood. If it works it can get the numbers high enough for me to have chemo again."

"Boy," I said. "Did you ever think we'd be talking about getting a booster shot for something like this?"

"I know," he said. "And if it works, the good news—the good news—is that I get to have chemotherapy. That's the payoff."

"Some jackpot," I said.

"You know," he said, "it's getting so that I don't even like it when people say 'What's going on?'. I find myself saying,'Oh, my pulse is down,' or, 'Well, I need a booster shot.'"

('And You Know You Should Be Glad' by Bob Greene)

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Hey, why is "Jack" in the proverbial pot anyway? –  GEdgar Aug 14 '11 at 13:18
    
@GEdgar: see the last paragraph in my answer –  wfaulk Aug 14 '11 at 14:52

2 Answers 2

This is an example of meaning #1, but "some jackpot" is being said sarcastically. If the potential payoff of the shot were a complete cure, that would indeed be a jackpot, but instead they're saying that chemotherapy, which is a very difficult and dangerous process, is potentially the good news here. Chemotherapy doesn't really seem like something to celebrate, so the speaker says, sarcastically, "Some jackpot."

It would be easier to understand if you could hear the speaker's tone of voice when he says it, but another clue is when the other speaker says, "the good news—the good news—is that I get to have chemotherapy." The repetition of the phrase "the good news" emphasizes that this phrase is being used in an unexpected way, to introduce something that isn't necessarily good.

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Thanks, Nicholas. Would you also use 'jackpot' to mean (2) in some situation? –  Sssamy Aug 14 '11 at 10:39
    
Maybe, but only if that thing were also quite desirable to have. I wouldn't use it (sincerely and non-sarcastically) to describe something that's both unlikely and undesirable. –  Nicholas Aug 14 '11 at 10:42
    
You mean unlikely and desirable (great, something that you should be happy about)? –  Sssamy Aug 14 '11 at 11:20
    
Right. I would use "jackpot" to describe something unlikely and desirable. I wouldn't use it to describe something unlikely and undesirable, unless I was being sarcastic. –  Nicholas Aug 14 '11 at 11:29
    
How about just unlikely? –  Sssamy Aug 14 '11 at 11:33

@Nicholas' answer is correct, but I thought I would add some information about the word "jackpot" itself, as the dictionaries I looked at didn't really seem to include this information.

The most common truly denotative use of "jackpot" refers to a large single win at gambling, frequently one that is solely luck based, like from a slot machine or lottery. You wouldn't generally use it when the payoff is small or if it were won over multiple transactions, even if it were large. (Incidentally, "to hit the jackpot" is a commonly used phrase meaning "to win the jackpot".)

However, it is often used metaphorically, to the point that it has become a standard definition of its own. But I think that it still needs an understanding of the gambling-based definition in order to really understand its usage.

In this case, it is definitely being used sarcastically.

"Some jackpot."
"That's some jackpot."
"That's an excellent jackpot."
"That's an excellent large and unexpected reward."

By the way, in spoken English, "some" would be strongly emphasized in this usage, and is probably more frequently used sarcastically than not.

(By the way, the gambling usage probably stems from card games where a pair of jacks is required to play, but blind antes are required regardless of whether or not the person paying the ante will play the hand. This leads to a situation where the pot may build up with blind antes before anyone has a chance to play at all.)

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