Q From Reg Tydell: I don’t think you’ve covered On a hiding to nowhere? A search on the web turns up usage, but no history. My understanding of the phrase’s meaning is “a hopeless endeavour”.
A This British idiom much more commonly appears as on a hiding to nothing. That’s the version I learned as a child and which I would use without questioning it. But yours, I have now learned, has been appearing since the 1970s, though it is greatly outnumbered by the other.
The idea behind it is that you’re faced with a situation in which every outcome is going to be unfavourable and in which true success is impossible. That sounds like your “hopeless endeavour” but there is more to it. The saying implies that even if you do succeed you’ll get no credit for it while failure will leave you in disgrace.
We know we’re on a hiding to nothing. If we don’t win the game by more than three or four goals, we’ll get no credit, only criticism.
The Mirror, 22 Mar. 2013.
Hiding to nothing has throughout its history most often turned up in sports contexts. It starts to appear in print around the end of the nineteenth century in reports of horse racing. Early users took care to explain it, so they clearly expected their readers not to know what it meant. My guess is that they wanted to share an item of racing-stable jargon to add colour and make them seem insiders:
His trainer, whoever he might be, would have been in the unenviable position of being on “a good hiding to nothing” — in other words, he would have got no credit if Flying Fox had won, and if he lost would have come in for a good deal of adverse criticism.
Liverpool Mercury, 19 Mar. 1900.
The other form — the one with nowhere — may have grown up in more recent times because users were no longer sure which sense of the word hiding was meant. If it was putting something out of sight, then nowhere would seem to fit better than nothing. But we’re sure hiding is in the same sense that an angry parent would once use to a wicked child: “I’ll give you a hiding!”, meaning a beating or flogging on the child’s skin — his hide. That sense of hiding can be traced to the end of the eighteenth century.
The phrase is putting the two words in opposition. The alternatives are nothing, a result not worth having, or hiding, figuratively a demeaning defeat. I hear in the formulation an echo of the way in which horse-racing odds are usually expressed (three to one, five to four). And might a jockey’s whipping of his mount during a race have contributed to its genesis? I rather suspect it did.