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Buckley’s chance

Q From Mike White, Australia: A word often used here in Oz comes to mind: Buckley’s, as in ‘He hasn’t a Buckley’s’ or ‘Not a Buckley’s of me doing that’, no chance at all. But where did it come from?

A This term for a very slim hope or no chance at all is well known in both Australia and New Zealand but isn’t, I think, recorded anywhere else. That suggests that the Buckley concerned is a local person. The expression has been known in various forms; as well as the ones you quote, there are also the older and longer forms Buckley’s chance, Buckley’s hope and Buckley’s show; the name is used alone in “There are just two chances, Buckley’s or none”, two notional possibilities that in reality amount to next to no chance at all.

There are, as it happens, just two known choices for the answer. One points to William Buckley, a convict in the early days of European settlement in Australia, who escaped in 1803 from the short-lived penal settlement at Port Philip Bay (where Melbourne is today) and lived for 32 years with the Aborigines in southern Victoria, gaining the sobriquet of The Wild White Man, before giving himself up and being pardoned. The implication is that, like Buckley, you have no chance of success, it being assumed that you measure success by an escape to a part of Australia colonised by European immigrants. One problem is that Buckley died in 1856, whereas the expression doesn’t appear in print until 1895 (though that isn’t a conclusive objection, since phrases are often transmitted orally for years before they get written down and Buckley’s story became one of the most common anecdotes told about the early days of colonisation). The other possibility links it with the department store in Melbourne run by Messrs Buckley and Nunn, so that the expanded version, “there are just two chances, Buckley’s or none”, is a pun. However, that phrase isn’t recorded until 1953 and you need to have William Buckley’s exploits in mind before the pun achieves its full force.

You must take your choice. At this distance in time our chance of finding out which, if either, is right is roughly Buckley’s.

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Page created 14 Feb 2004