70

That 'fat chance' means 'a small chance' (and is always used sarcastically) is clear to me. But what I was wondering about is if the term used to be factual and then changed meaning because it started to be used in a sarcastic way, or has it always been sarcastic and was it never used literally?

(Is that latter option even possible? Isn't it so that the sarcasm actually only works if everybody knows that underneath 'fat' means 'big' here? But I'm above all curious if it ever was a normal term, such as 'slim chance' still is)

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    The ngram for this (while not exhaustive) is really nice. – Strawberry Jun 8 '17 at 13:57
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    The meaning of fat chance, originally used literally, was probably influenced by the earlier similar expression "a fat lot" - Very little or no possibility, as in A fact chance he has of coming in first, or You think they'll get married? Fat chance! A related expression is a fat lot, meaning "very little or none at all," as in A fat lot of good it will do her. The first of these slangy sarcastic usages dates from the early 1900s, the second from the 1890s. (AHD) – user66974 Jun 8 '17 at 14:02
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    Related trivia: In Cougar Town they have a recurring joke of changing the meaning of idioms to something that "makes more sense". Quote: "Since slim chance means something probably won't happen, fat chance means it definitely will happen." They change was approved in one episode and stayed like that for the rest of the series. – xDaizu Jun 9 '17 at 12:28
73

I found a few early instances where the use seems to refer to a significant chance, or even an exorbitant or undeserved opportunity, but this intended meaning appears to be rare and was rapidly overwhelmed by the figurative meaning.

Here are a few of the clippings I collected where "fat chance" seems to mean a big chance:

1860

Isaac V. Fowler, the fugitive Postmaster has just recovered from the yellow fever in Cuba, and is going to Mexico to superintend a gold mine, where there will be a fat chance for pickings.

enter image description here


1873

They read about the eighty percent dividends, and then resolve that the Congressmen who have such fat chances won't get votes so cheap next time.

enter image description here


1895

...for the men work in such perfect harmony. A glance at their exhibition yesterday was sufficient to show that the Orioles have a "fat" chance to carry off the flag this season.

enter image description here

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    I suspect using the term "fat" for "ripe for the picking" (in other words "great" or "opportune") was common in many eras. There is also the baseball term "fat pitch" , meaning a ball thrown by a pitcher(mistakenly) that ended up being an easy mark for a hitter. If I would speculate more, I would say it came from a "fat calf" being the calf that was ripe for the harvesting. (and that meaning probably goes back to biblical references... probably to pre-history .. of killing the fatted calf (or whatever the precursor words were for fatted in earlier languages). – Tom22 Jun 7 '17 at 18:56
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    Whether used sarcastically to mean no chance, or whether meant to signify a significant chance, "fat chance" is figurative either way. – iconoclast Jun 7 '17 at 20:26
  • @iconoclast fair point. I suppose I used "figurative" for lack of a better word, because I don't think I would describe it as "sarcastic" either. Maybe just "contemporary meaning" – RaceYouAnytime Jun 7 '17 at 20:45
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    I like the first example being about a gold mine. One can imagine during this period if the term was regularly used in this way, it could quickly gain a reputation for being a promise destined to be unfulfilled. – Darren Ringer Jun 8 '17 at 14:15
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    Two words I never though to see together: "fugitive postmaster." It's too bad his Wikipedia page is quite bare – HotelCalifornia Jun 9 '17 at 18:25
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The first attestation of the phrase 'fat chance' I found is somewhat problematic, being in the 1778 (second) edition of Helenore; or, The fortunate shepherdess: a poem in the broad Scotch dialect, by Alexander Ross:

Fat chance he furder had, she cud na tell,
But was right fain, that she wan aff hersell.

Some gloss: "fain" means 'glad'; "wan aff" means 'got away'; "hersell" means 'herself'. "Fat chance he furder had" here appears to mean 'what amount of opportunity remained for him', with a slant toward the optimistic 'what large amount'; equally, however, the slant could be toward the pessimistic and ironic 'what small amount'. I'm entertaining objections to the interpretation, either way.

To be sure that the phrase was not a result of typographical error or unfortunate editorial intervention, I checked two later editions of the same work. By chance, I also found that the couplet appears in the Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, v 2, 1825, as attestation of the "wan aff" gloss given in the foregoing (see entry for "To win aff, or off").

The next appearance of the phrase was a nonironic use in Chains and freedom: or, The life and adventures of Peter Wheeler, a colored man yet living, published in 1839:

You see I felt very independent jist now, for I begun to feel my oats a leetle; and so he agreed to give me twenty shillin's if I would, and so I agree tu, and went aboard, and glad enough tu of sich a fat chance of gittin' along.

Couched in ersatz dialect as this is, and supposing the author to be playing a long game, the phrase could be interpreted as an example of the character's misuse of a phrase that would ordinarily be ironic. I think the chance of such authorial subtlety manifesting in this particular work is...not good.

The present sense of the phrase ("a fat lot: a large amount, a great deal: always ironical and implying ‘very little, hardly anything’. Similarly a fat chance, implying ‘hardly any opportunity’", OED) appears to have arisen alongside nonironic or at least borderline nonironic uses, if we take these two, and so rather scanty, attestations as representative of early figurative (supposing the Scottish dialect is not meant to be literal) use, and add into the account later attestations that appear to be nonironic, for example,

Stephen will, I believe do much better in educating the public mind, in using his great talents to manufacture Men, rather than in contriving ways for half men to get at the ballot box. For if he gets them astride his horse, they will jump off and mount the first jackass that bellows out that he has a fat chance at the "crib," and holds out the idea that they may have a chance at the office of currying and feeding him.
   Oh! we want men, and men will find a way to act. Haters of slavery, will fight slavery always, but office seekers will fight for office first and not fight slavery at all until it is popular to do so.

Anti-Slavery Bugle (Lisbon, Ohio), 27 Feb 1858 (paywalled).


To be plain, and because there seems to be controversy based on speculation rather than evidence, while it is possible that an idiom with an entirely ironic origin might become established, it is unlikely at best.

In this case: I collected 47 attestations (48 if the suggestive but outlying 1778 Scottish dialect example is counted), from 1839 through 1905, the year before the earliest attestation given by OED (1906) for the "always ironical" sense. The corpora I used were the HathiTrust Digital Library (US and UK), British Newspaper Archive (paywalled; majority of collection is from 1800-1900), and Newspapers+ Publisher Extra (US, aka newspapers.com, paywalled), chosen for their comparative comprehensiveness and relative ease of use. My results can be checked and reproduced using those corpora, allowing for error (horrible, but possible).

Obviously, it is not desirable to display that quantity of examples here, so a detailed timeline will have to suffice.

Year   Ironic   Not Ironic   US   UK   Total
1839   0        1            1    0    1    
1858   0        1            1    0    1    
1860   0        1            1    0    1    
1867   0        1            1    0    1    
1870   0        1            0    1    1    
1873   0        1            1    0    1
1886   0        1            1    0    1
1888   1        0            0    1    1
1890   1 uncert 0            1    0    1
1892   3        0            2    1    3
1893   1        0            1    0    1
1895   0        1            1    0    1
1896   0        2            2    0    2
1897   1 uncert 1            2    0    2
1899   1        1            1    1    2 (not ironic, UK; ironic, US)
1900   0        2            1    1    2
1901   2        2            3    0    3 (headline pun = 4: "[Edward] Fat's Chances Good")
1902   1 uncert 2            3    0    3
1903   4        0            4    0    4
1904   3        4            7    0    7
1905   1        6            7    0    7
--------------------------------------------
Total  19       28

What is immediately apparent is that ironic uses of 'fat chance' did not appear in the three corpora until 1888, nearly 50 years after the first nonironic use. Ironic uses were the only uses 1888-1893, followed by only nonironic uses 1895-1896, and possibly 1897. After that, ironic and nonironic uses both appeared in the same years, with the exception of 1900 (no ironic uses) and 1903 (no nonironic uses). It is also notable that, OED declaration notwithstanding, the preponderance of uses in these corpora during the target date range were not ironic.

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    "Fat" in the first line of the Alexander Ross poem is a pronunciation-variant of "What" -- "FAT, pron. Also †faht; †phat ...and, orig. in unstressed position, fit, fut, †fout. n.Sc. forms of WHAT. " (Dictionary of the Scottish Language -- dsl.ac.uk/entry/snd/fat_pron). Thus: "What further chance he had, she could not tell." – Robin Hamilton Jun 8 '17 at 7:12
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    @RobinHamilton, is that related to the peculiar pronunciation heard in Scotland, among other places, of pronouncing the 'h' in "What" in a very hard way? (I'm no linguist and do not know the technical word to describe this pronunciation, but you surely will know what I mean!) – PatrickT Jun 8 '17 at 11:41
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    I think these are probably separate issues. According to the DSL, FAT for WHAT was a Northern Scottish usage, and is no longer current. I think the same pronunciation could occur in Irish English in the eighteenth century, so it may be a result of the association with Gaelic. But that's a guess! I pronounce the "h" in "what", but in the West of Scotland (where I come from) it's often dropped or minimized. But I'm pretty much an amateur in this area, so I can't be much help here. – Robin Hamilton Jun 8 '17 at 18:17
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    @JEL -- I took your comments above to be a paraphrase (interpretation) rather than a translation. A strict translation would read: "What [Fat] possibility [chance] he further [furder] had, she could not tell [cud na tell]". The bottom line is that "Fat" in the Ross poem corresponds to Standard English "What", and has no relation to (SE) "Fat". But I think we're probably singing from the same song-sheet here, only couching the tune in different words. And kudos for finding the Ross poem in the first place -- I gave you an uptick for that earler. – Robin Hamilton Jun 8 '17 at 21:04
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    If I could upvote this again I would. Impressively researched as always. – RaceYouAnytime Jun 9 '17 at 2:36
14

The literal usage was either never used popularly or only used that way for a short period of time. My authority other than "not that I am aware of"? -- I say this based on comparing the Google Ngram and this idiom website quoted below:

fat chance

Very little or no possibility, as in "A fat chance he has of coming in first.", or "You think they'll get married? Fat chance!" ...[this] slangy sarcastic [usage] dates from the early 1900s.

enter image description here

My logic: If the sarcastic usage dates from the early 1900s and the phrase itself started right around that time then there was only a small amount of time (if any) where the literal usage was common.

I disagree that the idiom only works if the reader/listener first understands the literal usage. My authority is my own experience here! Until 15 minutes ago, I never thought that this was sarcasm. When I read your question it hit me immediately. But yet, I have known for many years it meant "no chance"! I am glad I know now, thanks!

EDIT

RaceYouAnytime has found some early references to the literal use so it is clear we cannot say it was never used that way.

  • I didn't say 'first understands'. I was just noticing that everyone feels that 'fat chance' has sarcasm in it, which means that somewhere people must understand that 'fat' literally implies 'big'. If not, it would just mean 'small' but without the feeling of sarcasm. It can't be and sarcastic and not literally imply 'big'. – gctwnl Jun 8 '17 at 22:52
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    I upvoted for "I disagree that the idiom only works if the reader/listener first understands the literal usage." I, too, never realized this was ironic until reading it 15 minutes ago. But an important clarification: although I didn't realize it was verbally ironic I did know it was sarcastic; it has a definitely mocking or bitter tone. According to the definition of sarcasm I learned, I think this tone means it is sarcastic even if in common English people don't realize it is ironic. – 6005 Jul 9 '17 at 10:02
7

It seems, from the beginning, to have meant "no chance at all". Green's Dictionary of Slang has the earliest recorded occurrence from 1850, in the form, ‘any one had a fat lot of chance to speak the truth there,’ so it would seem to parallel a phrase like, "a fat lot of good that will do," where "fat" operates as a negation. Ngrams suggest that the earliest form was "good chance" (pre-1800), with "slim chance" appearing in the 1830s. "Fat chance" only appears (according to Ngram) in 1900. That would suggest to me that "slim chance" originates as a contrastive term to "good chance", with "fat chance" (coined out of "slim chance") indicating (ironically) something even less than a slim chance.

  • Interesting. According to Ngram, it looks like Fat chance actually pre-dates the usage of Fat lot of chance... I would have assumed it the other way around o.0 – kayleeFrye_onDeck Jun 8 '17 at 19:36
  • Wow, wonderful answers and comments all. Thanks. This one struck me: could 'fat chance' have started as a contraction of 'fat lot of chance' where 'fat lot' already was being used sarcastically/cynically? – gctwnl Jun 8 '17 at 22:44
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I haven't found early non-sarcastic usage of fat chance versus sarcastic usage and I doubt you will. Its wording directly contrasts with the similar thin chance (Miscellaneous Works of Tobias Smollett, 1848) and slim chance(American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine - Volume 4, 1832). I can't think of any usage in English where fat somehow becomes non-ironically inverted in its definition. However the fact that usage of thin chance and slim chance appear later than fat chance makes one wonder if they were the natural result of the usage of fat chance for a non-ironic, non-sarcastic phrasing.

In regards to fat lot of chance, I have seen fat lot used non-ironically, but in a completely different context and usage, in regards to an actual plot of land.

Google Ngram Viewer claims sarcastic usage goes back as far as at least 1804 for British English with the mention of Fat chance. Robin Hamilton points out that the original publication was actually in 1768.

excerpt from Alexander ROSS (Schoolmaster at Lochlee.) - 1804

Ngram URL
Excerpt URL
Google Book URL

  • You toyed with the smoothing to make it look like that (as compared with this other answer's ngram). If you actually delve into the results of the search there is no 1762 result. – Laurel Jun 8 '17 at 19:38
  • How would I go about verifying that? – kayleeFrye_onDeck Jun 8 '17 at 19:41
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    At the bottom of most ngrams are links for date ranges, and the one you should look at is 1500 - 1940. – Laurel Jun 8 '17 at 19:43
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    No problem. (I typically sort by date, then go to the last page to quickly find the first one.) But you still haven't answered the question, which is not looking for the first, but rather any non-sarcastic usage of the term. – Laurel Jun 8 '17 at 20:01
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    Despite Ngram and google books (which gives later reprints), Alexander Scott's Helinore, or the Fortunate Shepherdess was originally printed in 1768, in Aberdeen. See dsl.ac.uk/bibliography/snd/sb2531. Alexander Scott seems to have been a singularly little-known disciple of the better-known Alan Ramsey. – Robin Hamilton Jun 9 '17 at 3:11
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My interpretation of "fat" in "fat chance" is not exactly ironic in the way other answers have described. I think "fat" means "exaggerated." So to say, "Fat chance that you get the job," is like saying "You're overestimating the possibility that you get the job."

If that interpretation is right, it wouldn't necessarily have to start with a different meaning, because the "exaggeration" sense would be part of the original message.

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