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I found the phrase “his to lose” in today’s Associate Press news reporting Herman Cain’s sexual harassment allegation under the lengthy caption “Cain seeks to put aside harassment allegations even as lawyer for accuser presses on.”

It appears in the following lines:

“Romney is running his second national campaign and has spent the past few weeks shoring up support among the GOP establishment for a nomination fight many Republican insiders think is his to lose.”

I first thought “his to lose” means he will certainly to lose, which sounds very odd to say at this stage. So I checked the exact meaning of the phrase on online dictionaries, and got the quite contrary definition on wiki.answers.com, that says:

"It means that someone is winning by so much, that the only way he could lose at that point would be if he defeated himself, i.e. by 'choking' or 'dropping the ball.'"

I’m interested in how did “his to lose” come to mean he is sure to win (the game / fight) unless he should blunder (defeat himself) in quite reversal way from its surfacial look – his to lose?

Although I see growing increase of the incidence of the usage of this phrase since 1980 after the first peak in early 1900 in Google Ngram, Is this a very popular phrase among English speaking society today?

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3 Answers

Romney is currently the frontrunner for the GOP campaign, if we ignore Cain for the moment (who has other matters to deal with). He is doing so well in the race to be nominated by the GOP that many people think he has won, even though the race isn't quite over. In other words, it's a foregone conclusion (at least for those people) that Romney has won the nomination.

Now let's liken this to a different situation: Assume you and I were trying to get an apple, and you had gotten it. It's your apple to lose now, because you already have it, and thus you can lose it. I can't lose the apple since I don't have it, although I could lose the contest as a whole.

So now that Romney essentially has the nomination, it is his nomination to lose; while all but one candidate will lose the nomination in the sense that they will not win it, Romney's loss (if he does so happen to lose) would be a loss in the sense of losing something already possessed.

As for popularity of the phrase, I wouldn't say it's obscure, but neither is it commonly used.

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The phrase "yours to lose" means nearly the same thing as "yours to win". These phrases mean that whether you win or lose depends on your actions, and not on circumstances beyond your control.

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I think lately when pundits say it's his to lose they tend to mean the default position is that he'll win, so long as there are no unanticipated upsets. Which I think they contrast with his to win, meaning he could in principle win, but only if everything goes in his favour. –  FumbleFingers Nov 3 '11 at 1:51
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"His to lose" is an indication of such a competitive advantage held by the male in question that the battle/competition may already be considered to be won by him. Any variation to the expected outcome of the competition is thus highly unlikely, but still possible.

Consider the example of the Ashes cricket match. If Australia had won the match for five years running (or whatever long period you'd like to choose) then it's "Australia's to lose" since Australia is the opposite of the underdog.

If England should win, like they did last summer, then you would NOT say it's "England's to lose" since they've not yet proved they have an overwhelming competitive advantage. Australia still has a good chance of winning. If England won the match for another two years running then the likelihood of a repeat win increases because Australia's now the underdog. Thus it would then be "England's to lose".

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