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What is the origin of the phrase: "A cat in hell's chance"?

I understand it to mean "not a chance", but it seems a very curious saying and I wonder how it originated.

e.g.

Bob: Do you think Liverpool will win the title this season.

Geoff: Not a cat in hell's chance.

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Sounds like a mixed metaphor. Something about cats. Something about hell. Must not have a good chance. –  Mitch Mar 27 '12 at 15:14
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@Mitch: I don't think it's a "mixed metaphor". I take it you mean something to do with cats, getting mixed up with a snowflake in hell). But that latter metaphor doesn't turn up in print until a century and a half after the cat one, so if they are connected, it's the other way around. –  FumbleFingers Mar 27 '12 at 15:39
    
@FumbleFingers: yes, something like that (I had never heard those words in that collection before). But thanks for doing the research for the OP. I would have thought 'cat's chance in hell', but with these unknown things it's hard to pick the right thing to look for that actually does occur. –  Mitch Mar 27 '12 at 16:56
    
@Mitch: I thought both the cat and snowflake versions were widely known, but perhaps there's a regional element involved. Per comments with Andrew Leach, we both find "not a cat in hell's chance" more natural than "not a cat's chance in hell" - but who's to say whether there's anything inherent in that, as opposed to it just being a matter of what we're most used to hearing? –  FumbleFingers Mar 27 '12 at 17:15
    
As cats are in ancient time guardians of the underworld it would be impossible for them to be in hell if they where the guards in the first place. –  user51818 Sep 12 '13 at 10:42

2 Answers 2

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I found 13 instances of "cat in hell" in Google Books from 1759-1820. All but two refer to said cat being "without claws".

I suspect it was a long-standing spoken idiom before turning up in print - the idea being that Hell is assumed to be an exceptionally hostile environment. Although cats are remarkably well-adapted for survival (nine lives and all that), their claws are formidable weapons in that context.

In an earlier age where cats were largely expected to feed themselves by catching mice, etc., a cat would have a hard time surviving anywhere without its claws. It certainly wouldn't be expected to thrive in Hell.

Over the past century, the alternative not a snowflake/snowball in hell's chance has become increasingly popular. The snow variants, collectively more common now than the metaphoric cat, obviously allude to the standard perception that hell is exceptionally hot.

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The Ngram is interesting. –  Andrew Leach Mar 27 '12 at 15:26
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@Andrew Leach: Yes - I think the snowflake works better on the metaphoric/semantic level, but rhythmically it's a bit more awkward to get the spoken delivery right. Very interesting that "not a snowflake's chance" gets 66 hits in Google Books, whereas "not a cat's chance" gets none at all. I think in "not a snowflake in hell's chance", that embedded noun phrase is just a bit too long/complex for most speakers. –  FumbleFingers Mar 27 '12 at 15:35
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Not a snowflake's chance in hell is pleasantly iambic and is what I use; but not a cat in hell's chance is easier than not a cat's chance in hell. –  Andrew Leach Mar 27 '12 at 15:39
    
@Andrew Leach: Absolutely - "cat in hell" has the kind of clipped "dah-di-dah" rhythm English speakers prefer for what's effectively a single semantic/syntactic unit. Since we want that unit "parenthetically" inserted into "not a chance" (almost adjectivally, since you could replace it with, for example, "bloody"), I think it keeps the older expression alive. If our word for "snowflake" had happened to be only a single syllable, I think it would probably have become a far more dominant form by now. –  FumbleFingers Mar 27 '12 at 15:51
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I usually hear "snowball" vice "snowflake." ("Ice cube," too, sometimes.) Here's another cool-as-a-snowflake Ngram. –  J.R. Mar 27 '12 at 18:02

FumbleFingers explains the meaning well, here's some extra notes. I also noticed a fair number of citations from the navy.

18th century

The original phrase was "no more chance than a cat in hell without claws" (with variation) and (taking a different tack and searching for "hell without claws" rather than "cat in hell" turns up some with a few mis-scanned "cat") I can find no earlier occurrence than the 1759 The life and real adventures of Hamilton Murray, written by himself linked in FumbleFingers' answer:

'For you see,' says he, 'you'll stand no more chance here than a cat in hell without claws.'

From the same search, we can find this phrase in Francis Grose's 1788 A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue:

Cat's Foot To live under the cat's foot to be under the dominion of a wife hen pecked To live like dog and cat spoken of married persons who live unhappily together As many lives as a cat cats according to vulgar naturalists have nine lives that is one less than a woman No more share than a cat in hell without claws said of one who enters into a dispute or quarrel with one greatly above his match

A humorous poem in The Gentleman's Magazine, for April, 1792, written from the point of view of a cat in hell, sent to his master on earth, has a footnote that claims a (tongue-in-cheek?) origin:

Charon has orders to deprive all cats of their claws. Whence comes that saying in hopeless case -- "he has as much chance as a cat in Hell without claws?"

The first that doesn't mention claws is 1783's A Letter to Sir Phil. Jen. Clerke

A hog in a synagogue, a male Christian caught in a Turkish seraglio, a flying fish in a shoal of dolphins, or a cat in hell would have had better quarter.

19th century

In the 19th century, John Bellenden Ker "endeavoured to retrace the original form of the words which I believe to have then duly conveyed the sense of the phrases of the above category. By applying the sound of the words which constitute the modern phrase to others which it fitted in the Low Saxon stage of our language, I have always found a sense, corresponding with that conveyed by the form under which they are now disguised, to be the result of the experiment. The following pages contain the proofs of this test."

Well, I'm not entirely convinced by the "proof", but here it is from 1834's An essay on the archaeology of our popular phrases, and nursery rhymes:

A CAT IN HELL WITHOUT CLAWS he has no more chance than a cat in hell without claws and meaning he has no chance at all Dan er guit in heel nijst uit klaars qe than that a thorough rogue should tell of his own accord all he knows and implying than that a thorough paced rogue should act like an honest man and thus a case out of all question a case that never can happen Gait a consummate villain Wifsen to explain to show up _Klaar s clearly ingenuously and sounds as clan s In heel in regard to every thing entirely

And by 1837 Bellenden Ker produced another edition with a whole page of explanation, which I won't reproduce here, but his digging resulted in this "origin": so that the existance of villainy contains within itself a clear proof there must be a hell.

The 1892 Journal of American Folklore reports the phrase used to mean lack of peace rather than lack of chance:

There 's no more peace here than for a cat in hell without claws. (Ohio.)

However, still the most common meaning was to have no chance, to be helpless or defenceless.

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Wish I could accept both answers. :-) –  Urbycoz Mar 29 '12 at 8:36

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