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Doubtless the Orcs despoiled them, but feared to keep the knives, knowing them for what they are: work of Westernesse, wound about with spells for the bane of Mordor. Well, now, if they still live, our friends are weaponless. I will take these things, hoping against hope, to give them back.

- Aragorn in The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien

I've heard this expression on occasion. It doesn't make much sense to me. I've never heard seeing against sight, or fearing against fear.

A friend who is not a native speaker was confused by this recently.

I'm looking for either the origin of this peculiar expression, or an explanation of the phrase's construction.

  • 3
    You're right, it's weird. +1. I've always parsed it as "Hoping against [the fact that, in reality, there is no] hope", but I have absolutely no way to defend or support that from a grammatical or etymological perspective. – Dan Bron May 17 '15 at 0:53
  • @DanBron, well I have no explanation at all for those three words, so your's is not a bad suggestion. – Paul Draper May 17 '15 at 1:01
  • Maybe it's that if you have nothing, all you can have is hope - so, the only thing to support your hope, is hope, itself. "Hoping against hope" = hope, with only hope to support it. – Oldbag May 17 '15 at 11:11
  • Yeah, I've always considered it to be a weird expression. Rhetorician's answer is probably the best bet for an explanation of the origin and fundamental meaning -- continuing to hope in spite of the fact that "reason" says there is no hope. – Hot Licks May 17 '15 at 13:55
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Rhetorician has pointed out correctly that this phrase is a quotation from the Bible (Romans 4:18), or, more precisely from the 17th-century King James version (“Who against hope believed in hope..”). The Greek original has: ὃς παρ᾽ἐλπίδα ἐπ᾽ἐλπίδι ἐπίστευσεν, where the Apostle plays with the double meaning of ἐλπίς, which can mean both (positive) “hope” and (neutral) “expectation”. In older English “hope” also had both meanings, but the latter is now obsolete. A modern English literal rendering might then be: “Who against expectation believed in what he hoped for”.

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    Very good! Puts me in mind of the difficulty I have had at times trying to clarify the distinction between 'hope', 'expect' and 'wait' in Spanish - all three verbs can be translated using the same word - esperar. – Dan Apr 25 '19 at 23:36
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The expression comes from the Bible, the Letter of St. Paul to the Roman Christians, chapter 4, verse 18. Here are some of the ways the expression could be translated. Each of the following has been altered slightly, but if you are interested in the exact wording, look here.

  • Even when there is no logical reason to hope, hope anyway.

  • Beyond hope, but maintaining faith in hope.

  • Past hope, but still hoping.

  • Against hope, but believing in hope.

  • Believing in hope, even when there's no reason to hope.

  • When there's nothing left to hope for, still hope.

  • Hope believed against hope.

  • Against hope, believe in hope.

  • Continue hoping even when there's no hope.

  • Against all hope, in hope believe.

  • Believe hopefully when utterly hopeless.

  • Against hope, in hope still believe.

And here are a few of my ways of expressing the thought:

  • Even when you're up against a hopeless situation, choose to hope anyway. (It beats giving up!)

  • Be hopeful even when things seem hopeless.

  • When a situation seems hopeless, hope anyway.

In context (read Romans 4:17-19) Romans 4:18 speaks of Abraham, the father of the Jews, who despite being close to 100 years old, and despite being married to Sarah who was well past childbearing years at the age of 90, chose to believe that God could do what he had promised more than two decades earlier to do; namely, to give him and Sarah a child of their own, through their own bodies.

For the complete story of Abraham's and Sarah's miracle child (viz., Isaac), read Genesis chapters 15, 16, and 18.

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Rhetorician's explanation is right on target.

...the double meaning of ἐλπίς, which can mean both (positive) “hope” and (neutral) “expectation”. In older English “hope” also had both meanings, but the latter is now obsolete.

The two distinct meanings of hope, esperanza and esperança, in Spanish and Portuguese, Latin-based languages, continue—as they once did in English—to mean both hope and expectation. Hence, in expression "hope against hope," the sense of the phrase is "I hope against what I expect to happen."

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