What Is The Origin Of (257)?…

Not a cat in hell’s chance

Are you inspired by the prospect of doing something that most people think impossible? When you announce your intention, the naysayers may say that there is not a cat in hell’s chance that you will pull it off. It is a colourful way of denoting that the thing is highly improbable, if not impossible. But why a cat and why hell?

The starting point in unravelling this mystery is to realise that the modern phrase is an abbreviated version of the original, no more chance than a cat in hell without claws. A footnote to a humorous poem printed in The Gentlemen’s Magazine of April 1792 perhaps gives a clue to the origin. “Charon”, it says, “has orders to deprive all cats of their claws. Whence comes that saying in hopeless cases – he has as much chance as a cat in Hell without claws”.   

Charon, my appointment with whom draws ever closer, was the man in Greek mythology who ferried souls across the rivers Styx and Acheron to Hades. A cat is dependent upon its claws to grip and despatch its prey so being without these weapons would be greatly inconvenienced. I haven’t been able to verify this practice of Charon’s from any other source and it may have been a piece of whimsy on the part of the contributor to add some classical veracity to a curious phrase.

Be that as it may, what is clear is that the phrase was well established by that time and was part of the spoken idiom of the common people. Jackson’s Oxford Journal of September 29, 1753 recounted the story of a poor unfortunate, one John Billingsgate, who had the misfortune of having his tongue and thus was condemned to communicate only by pen and ink. As his condition worsened and he grew delirious, the only intelligible thing he wrote was, “Without a Tongue I have no more chance in life, than a Cat in Hell without Claws”.   

Six years later, The Life and real adventures of Hamilton Murray, written by himself contained the following; “For you see, says he, you’ll stand no more chance here, than a cat in hell without claws”. The inestimable Francis Grose in his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue from 1788 defined our phrase as “said of one who enters into a dispute or quarrel with one greatly above his match”.

Understandably, but with a diminution of the phrase’s sense, it was soon abbreviated. Sir Philip Jenkins, who incidentally had the misfortune to have his cat stolen, wrote a letter in May 1769 in which he bemoaned, “a philosopher has no more chance among them than a cat in hell”. In a letter to Sir Phil. Jen. Clerke from a Benjamin Lacam who owned a harbour in Bengal, he waxed eloquently on the impossibility of the situation in which he found himself; “a hog in a synagogue…or a cat in hell would have had better quarter”.     

Interestingly, in America, at least according to the Journal of American Folklore from 1892, what the phrase reflected was a lack of peace rather than the probability of pulling something off, citing a reference from Ohio; “there’s no more peace here than for a cat in hell without claws”.

The more modern variant of not a cat’s chance in hell seems to have been a 20th century development. On September 11, 1914 the Yorkshire Star and Telegraph published a letter from a Private Brown reporting on his comrades struggles to hold the Germans at bay. “To use a soldier’s phrase”, he wrote, “our men if they had advanced in the open would not have had a Cat in Hell’s chance”. Whether it use originated amongst the troops in the trenches or was a familiar idiom amongst the working classes is not clear but it is this variant which is in use these days.

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