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In English we say an event has "long odds" if it is unlikely to happen, and "short odds" for the opposite.

The question is why?

Best I have been able to get from people:

  • Long over even (if you are betting then the odds you get from the house are larger then for an even bet)

  • Long as in something being a long way away and harder to hit/achieve/get to.

2

If you bet on a long shot, you get long odds. It's possible that this is where long odds came from. The OED first citations are: long odds from 17641; long shot with the meaning unlikely from 1796, but it's possible that the expression long shot was around earlier, but not written down.

And where did long shot come from? If you're shooting at something that's really far away, you are unlikely to hit it, so it's a "long shot". First OED citation for long shot meaning a distant target: 1767, but again it's possible that the expression was around earlier, but not written down.

And short odds are the opposite of long odds.

The phrase may have originally been nautical, which I suspect means it could have been around a long time before it appeared in print. From 1784:

He chose, in the seaman's phrase, a long-shot distance. The engagement began, and continued to the last, at too great a distance. 'Never,' said Sir Samuel,' was there ever more powder and shot thrown away in one day.'

1 ADDED IN EDIT: The OED has the following citation from 1764, but it's not clear to me that long odds has the usual meaning here:

Presently news was brought that the favourite horse, on whose head Mr. Huntly had laid the long odds,..had fallen and broke his leg, within three yards of the goal.

You don't generally put "long odds" on a favorite horse. The next OED citation is from 1818. The earliest "long odds" I can find in Google books is from 1783, which appears to have the modern meaning, and there are a number of appearances of "long odds" clearly having the modern meaning, starting around 1793.

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    but Peter, where did "odds" come from?? maybe I misunderstand. .. Your first sentence just assumes odds exists with an established meaning at "that time". WTH does "odds" mean? When you think about ... it it's a weird term for "betting results payout" and/or "fractional chance". – Fattie Jun 13 '16 at 21:39
  • The meaning of odds in gambling dates from the 16th century. So it did have a well-established meaning by the 18th century. – Peter Shor Jun 13 '16 at 23:17
  • The term "long shot" is unlikely to be the origin of the term "long odds", because it doesn't account for the existence of the term "short odds". – Dr. Funk Jun 14 '16 at 0:09
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    @Dr. Funk: You can find Rookwood on Project Gutenberg and check that it does indeed contain that quote. Book III, Chapter 9. – Peter Shor Jun 16 '16 at 20:47
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    "Odds" has a great history of use in discussing inequalities, going back to the early 16th century (OED). Adjectives such as long, short, and even come into play around the times Peter relates, in gambling and other contexts. – KWinker Jun 20 '16 at 2:14
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It likely comes from the size of the payout relative to the size of the bet.

If a particular horse has a very small chance of winning, a bookmaker might "stand the horse at a long price", meaning the odds against are high, so the winnings will be much greater than the outlay. Conversely, if the horse is the favorite to win, then you might stand to win less than your wager.

A bookmaker will set a "long price", an "even price", or a "short price" for a horse, depending on the odds. An old, poor performer with 20-1 odds against is said to have a long price. A horse with 1-1 odds is said to be priced at evens. An overwhelming favorite - say, 2-3 against - is said to have a short price.

Paradoxically, however, a "short horse" in the American vernacular is actually a horse that performs poorly. So, a "short horse" is actually the opposite of a "short priced horse".

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