A snowball’s chance in hell
I’m back on the trail of phrases which denote impossibility and a snowball’s chance in hell is both perfectly understandable in its figurative and almost certainly an Americanism. In popular imagination hell was typified as a place where eternal fires burned. A snowball, of course, is prone to melt once temperatures rise above freezing point. Naturally, therefore, a snowball subjected to the fires of hell would be transformed into a pool of water in pretty short order. Likening one’s chances to that of the survival of a snowball in such circumstances is tantamount to saying you don’t stand a chance.
It was in the 1880s that the pairing of a snowball and hell hit the printed page and all the examples are American. The Detroit Free Press of April 9, 1880, reporting the withdrawal of the support of former Secretary of State, George Gorham, from Rutherford Hayes, the 19th US President, to Ulysses Grant, noted that he had considered under Hayes’ administration, “a Republican in the South had about as much chance as a snowball in hell”.
It cropped up again in the Las Vegas Daily Gazette of March 27, 1884. The journal remarked that “there is no more show for the people of New Mexico to have a word to say in reference to the laws that shall be enacted during the next nine days than there is for a snowball in hell”. It is intriguing that the earliest examples reflect powerlessness in politics. This may simply be a coincidence. Whilst the meaning of the phrase is pretty clear, the fact that it is used without a gloss is suggestive of the fact that the phrase was in common parlance before the 1880s.
For those with more sensitive religious sensibilities, there was a variant. A report of an electoral dispute in the November 24, 1890 edition of The Atlanta Constitution records that the lawyer acting for the defendant, one Mr Norman, gave the rationale for his client switching his vote as “he saw that Northwood’s chances were about like a snowball’s chances in the lower regions”. The substitution deprives the phrase of its force, I feel.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the phrase also was used to describe speed, perhaps a more natural interpretation of the allusion. Many things are unlikely to escape the fires of hell for long, not least the souls of the damned, but it is the sheer rapidity of the demise of a snowball that is the point. The Rio Grande Republican picked up a report of a fire in a bakery in the San Marcial Times on January 27, 1883, noting that “the bakery melted away like a snowball in hell”.
It may have wormed its way into the consciousness of the paper because on November 3rd that year it reported that “a snowball in hell will not disappear more quickly than your friend if you ask him to drink at any other saloon than the Commercial”. And the Omaha Sunday Bee, great name, ran a short story on March 6, 1887 entitled A Wyoming Wedding, in which a character says, “that rheumatiz is a pesky thing, ain’t it? A man can’t last no longer than a snowball in hell, ridin’ with that in him”.
The Americans have their snowball in hell and we have not a cat’s chance in hell, two variations on a theme.