Glossary Home Idioms

A snowball’s chance in hell

“A snowball’s chance in hell” is an interesting English idiom that refers to a situation in which one has very little chance of succeeding.

It’s used in everyday conversations among friends and family members and is often included as a way to lighten the mood. It can be humorous when used in the right way. But, it can come across as too colloquial and perhaps even inappropriate if used in a formal setting.

A snowball’s chance in hell


Meaning

“A snowball’s chance in hell” is an amusing idiom that’s used to describe a very unlikely scenario.

For example, someone might use the phrase when they’re describing how likely it is that they win the lottery or are successful in a very difficult pursuit. The “snowball” in “hell” plays off of the fact that hell is a stereotypically hot place, and the snowball depends on freezing temperatures to survive. So, when placed in hell, it’s undoubtedly going to melt unless some incredibly unforeseen event happens. When you use this phrase, you’re effectively suggesting that something is impossible.

Origin of “A snowball’s chance in hell”

“A snowball’s chance in hell” dates back to at least the 1880s. One of the earliest examples of the phrase being used comes from The Detroit Free Press. The quote, which was included in an article about the Republican National Convention, reads:

Mr. George C. Gorham, ex-Secretary of the Senate, who not long since remarked, with a good deal of vigor, that under the Hayes administration a Republican in the South had about “as much chance as a snowball in hell,” now supports Grant.

Here, the author is using “as much chance as a snowball in hell” to describe the chances of a Republican in the south. The phrasing is slightly different here but considering that this was 140+ years ago, it is remarkably similar. Another interesting iteration from a few years later, located in the Las Vegas Daily Gazette, reads:

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.


When to Use the Phrase

It’s possible to use “a snowball’s chance in hell” in a wide variety of situations. But, it’s not suitable for formal conversations. This is due in part to the use of the word “hell.” but it is also quite critical and harsh-sounding, making it inappropriate for meetings, academic settings, or even casual conversations with one’s employer. The best times to use this phrase are among friends and family members.

One might say “a snowball’s chance in hell” when they’re trying to describe how unlikely it is that they, or someone they know, is going to succeed at a task. For example, “you have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the lottery.” If something crazy happened, you might win, but truly the odds are almost impossible to beat. Because of the metaphor at the heart of this idiom, it’s often used humorously. Someone might shout it before another person attempts a task, lightning the mood and revealing how unlikely it is that they’re going to be successful.

Example Sentences

  • You don’t really believe that, do you? You have a snowball’s chance in hell of being right.
  • Despite the fact that she had a snowball’s chance in hell, she persevered.
  • They kept working towards a goal despite their snowball’s chance in hell of being successful.
  • I don’t need much more than a snowball’s chance in hell to pursue my goals.
  • If you believe you only have a snowball’s chance in hell, then you’re probably not going to succeed.


Why Do Writers Use the Phrase?

Writers use “a snowball’s chance in hell” for the same reasons that it’s used in everyday conversations. Usually, in order to lighten the mood with a critical yet entertaining appreciation of events. If someone uses this phrase when they’re talking to another character, they’re likely trying to remind the person that whatever they’re about to attempt is incredibly unlikely to succeed.

It’s also possible to see this phrase used when the narrator is analyzing a situation. Someone might declare that a situation is impossible, and therefore another character has a “snowball’s chance in hell” of succeeding.

FAQs

What is a snowball’s chance in hell?

A snowball’s chance in hell is very little chance at all. A snowball is unlikely to survive in hell, where it is notoriously hot. So, if “you” have a snowball’s chance in hell, you’re unlikely to achieve whatever you’re trying to do.

Why do people use “snowball’s chance in hell?”

People use “snowball’s chance in hell” when they want to humorously tell someone that they don’t have a very good chance of succeeding in whatever they’re trying to do. It’s often used to lighten the mood during, particularly tense situations.

Is it okay to say “snowball’s chance in hell?”

It depends on the situation. It’s okay to say, usually, among friends and family members but less appropriate when it comes to more serious social situations. For example, when talking to your boss or while delivering a speech.


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