Chances Fat and Slim

By Maeve Maddox

A reader wonders about two expressions:

For many years I’ve wondered about Fat Chance and Slim Chance – both meaning “little chance,” but where’d they come from?

The Ngram Viewer indicates that “slim chance” came along about eighty years earlier than “fat chance” and that “slim chance” is far more common in print than “fat chance.” A Google search shows the expressions in about equal use on the Web.

One meaning of slim is “thin” or “slender,” but its meaning in “slim chance” is “meager, scanty, sparse.” I’d guess that the expression “fat chance” originated as a play on words.

Both expressions are popular in titles for books and articles that have something to do with obesity or fitness.

Slim Chance, Fat Hope: Society’s Obsession With Thinness

Slim Chance in a Fat World

Fat Chance! The Weight Loss Workbook

“Obese People Have Slim Chance of Obtaining Normal Body Weight”

“Critics say mesotherapy offers slim chance”

“Why dieters have fat chance of losing weight”

Although many speakers share the reader’s idea that both expressions mean the same thing, the two have different meanings.

If there’s a “slim chance” that something will happen, then there is a possibility, albeit a small one. That’s the meaning in this headline about the current movement of migrants:

How much for a spot on a rubber raft and a slim chance at a better life?”

“Fat chance” is an ironic way of saying there’s no chance at all, as in this exchange between a woman and a former boyfriend:

I was just wondering — ”
“ — if I’d come back to you now? Fat chance. Forget it.”

 

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