Q From Patricia Reid: Do you have the background to the expression chance your arm?
A Only up to a point. The phrase is mainly British and means to take a risk in the hope of achieving something worthwhile; it has been recorded since the 1880s. In its early decades it was most common as a soldier’s term. A good example is in The Middle Parts of Fortune of 1916, by Frederic Manning, about the fighting on the Somme and Ancre fronts in World War I: “What does it matter if y’are killed? You’ve got to die some day. You’ve got to chance your arm in this life, an’ a dam’ sight more ’n your arm too sometimes”.
Quite where it comes from, though, is an open question. Military men used it to refer to the stripes on the arm of one’s uniform, so that to chance one arm meant to take a calculated risk, which might end in a court martial and demotion. Some writers see an origin in a tailors’ term, largely because that origin is given in Barrère and Leland’s dictionary of slang of 1889, but the authors gave no details of why this should be so (apart from the assumption of a slightly strained link between arms and tailoring). Modern writers tend towards a link with boxing or prize fighting, in which to extend your arm to land a blow might leave your guard down and give your opponent a chance to retaliate.
It’s often said that the origin lies in a famous incident during a feud between two prominent Irish families, the Ormonds and the Kildares, in 1492. At one point, Sir James Butler, the Earl of Ormond, took refuge with his followers in the chapter house of St Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin. After a while, Gerald Fitzgerald, the Earl of Kildare, came to realise that the feud was nonsense and tried to make peace. In order to prove that no villainy was intended and that his desire for reconciliation was genuine, he cut a hole in the door and thrust his arm through. In doing this, of course, he was placing himself at the mercy of those inside, who could easily have cut it off. However, his hand was grasped by Butler and his peace overtures were accepted.
When this incident is retold, it’s often said that it’s the origin of chancing your arm. It’s relevant enough, but — as we’ve seen — the dates are all wrong. If that was where it came from, we should expect to find examples in the four centuries between the feud and its first known appearance in the 1880s. You can see how the story might have grown up, though. There are parallels with one in Galway about Lynch law, which also dates from 1492 (an eventful year). Though we can’t pin it down absolutely, all the evidence suggests an origin in late Victorian British slang.