Buckley’s chance is an Australian phrase meaning a slim chance or no chance at all. It is first cited in 1898 in the Sydney Bulletin of 17 December:
“Devil shoot me!” muttered Tim..."if I see Buckley’s chance of a shindy tonight.”1
The origin is unknown, but there are two common explanations.
The more likely of the two is that it is a bit of wordplay stemming from the name of the Melbourne department store of Buckley and Nunn, founded in 1851. The term is often phrased as there are two chances, Buckley’s and none.
A less likely, but more colorful, explanation is that it is a reference to William Buckley, a convict who escaped from Port Phillip prison in 1803 and lived with the Aborigines for 32 years before surrendering to authorities and obtaining a pardon. The problem with this explanation is the passage of time between his adventure and the appearance of the phrase and that fact that he did pretty well for himself in the bush. It’s not the story of a man with no chance.2
And it is possible for both of these to be true—with William Buckley giving rise to Buckley’s chance and it subsequently being punned into two chances Buckley’s and none, playing on the department store name.
2Sydney J. Baker, The Australian Language, Sun Books, 1970 (Melbourne: MacMillan, 1966), 269.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton