“Punter’s Chance”; “Punch Above One’s Weight”

If [the Oklahoma City Thunder are] clicking on all cylinders, I give them a punter’s chance obviously to put the kind of firepower out on the floor to go head to head with the [Golden State] Warriors four quarters.

—Jalen Rose, quoted in The New York Times, April 15, 2016

When I read that quote by Rose (a native of Detroit and famously a member of the University of Michigan’s Fab Five basketball team in the early 1990s), referring to two top National Basketball Association teams, my NOOBs antennae went up.

I had never encountered punter’s chance, but I knew that in Britain, punter is a common word that has not yet achieved NOOBs status. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it originated in the 18th century to mean “A person who plays against the bank at baccarat, faro, etc.” In Lynne Murphy’s discussion of the term in her blog, Separated by a Common Language, she says it was then generalized “to mean any type of gambler and from there to mean someone who pays for something, and particularly a man who pays for a prostitute’s services.” (This has no relation to the kicking play called the punt in American football and resulting metaphorical verb meaning to put off or delay a decision or action.)

From that, one can deduce that a punter’s chance means a small but not nonexistent chance, such as a bettor against long odds would have. One needs to deduce because the phrase isn’t defined in the OED or any other dictionary I’ve found. Indeed, it is a rarely used expression, on either side of the Atlantic, with scarcely more than 1,000 Google hits. The Rose quote represents the only time it has ever been used in The New York Times. The earliest use I’ve found is this tantalizing one apparently from an Australian financial publication called The Bulletin in 1973:  “At their present price of $2.30 the shares look good value in this market and it’s a punter’s chance that another free issue could be in the wind.” More solid is a quote from a 1986 article in The Hispanic American Historical Review —”He made promises he had only a punter’s chance of keeping.” A 2006 headline from The Times–“Vengeful Ponting Has Given England a Punter’s Chance”–made clever use of the nickname of Ricky Ponting, Australia’s  cricket captain at the time: “Punter.” Four years later, The Daily Mail noted: “It is not just the weather that might give an outsider a punter’s chance in Japan, but the fact the circuit presents a challenge unique in modern motor sport.”

My hypothesis is that punter’s chance is a rather brilliant eggcorn stemming from a more established (and more American than British) expression, puncher’s chance. This one comes from boxing and refers to the fact that even if you’re an outclassed underdog, you can win a match with one knockout punch. The first use I’ve found is from The New York Times in 1961: “Gene Fullmer today remained the favorite to defeat Florentino Fernandez, but the Cuban was given a puncher’s chance to score an upset.” It has been used 68 times in the Times since then, and it now shows up in all sorts of nonboxing and nonsports contexts, such as this from Nick Paumgarten, writing about the novelist James Salter in The New Yorker in 2013: “Among many writers, and some literary people, he is venerated for his sentence-making, his observational powers, his depictions of sex and valor, and a pair of novels that, in spite of thin sales and obscure subject matter, have more than a puncher’s chance at permanence.” Another former NBA player and current analyst, Vinny Del Negro, said last week, referring to the Dallas Mavericks’ playoff series against Oklahoma City, “You always have a puncher’s chance when Dirk [Nowitzki] is on the court.”

Talking of punching, to punch above [or more than] one’s weight is, according to the OED, a “chiefly British” metaphorical phrase derived from boxing and meaning to have more “power or influence [than] one’s status or significance allows or implies.” The first citation is from The Economist in 1986: “Though only some 12 percent of Nevadans are Mormons, they punch more than their weight.” It’s in full cliché mode now, with 5,340 hits in a Google News search. It is also a proper NOOB, with roughly as many of the hits from U.S. as from U.K. sources: e.g., “Russia, too weak to confront NATO directly, relies on two methods to punch above its weight, military analysts say” (The Boston Globe, April 16, 2016).

The phrase apparently really took off in the 1990s due to a widely quoted comment by Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd of Britain that the country punched above its weight in foreign affairs. Hurd subsequently denied “ever having expressed so crude a sentiment,” according to an Economist article in 1995. “He has ordered searches of electronic databases, defying anyone to find an authoritative attribution of the quote to him.”

No word on the results of the search.

15 responses to ““Punter’s Chance”; “Punch Above One’s Weight”

  1. I’ve never heard ‘punter’s chance’ in the UK, but it might be bookies’ slang, with which I am sadly unfamiliar. ‘Punter’ is however widely used, in an informal sense, for ‘customer’, ‘buyer’ etc. It’s slightly derogatory – not because of the link with prostitutes’ clients, but because it rather implies that said customers are looked down on as being merely a source of cash. I’m a member of an amateur orchestra, and we might say ‘we need lots of punters for the next concert’ meaning we needed to sell a lot of tickets to get the money in.

  2. Many years ago, I worked in a UK hospital where the medical staff referred to patients as “punters.”
    The remark was intended to be humorous but implied that the patients were betting they would survive treatments. I’m not sure I hear it so often now presumably as the admin. staff would take a dim view of remarks like that.

    • I have long wondered why the medical profession refers to its clients as ‘patients’. I have spoken of a doctor’s ‘clients’ and have been sternly ‘corrected’.
      This surprises me as I would have thought that ‘client’ as used by other professions or, even, ‘customer’ would have been much preferred by the medicos. The reason I say this is that the OED gives the origin of the word, ‘patient’, as ‘Middle English: from Old French, from Latin patient- ‘suffering’, from the verb pati.’
      This is entirely accurate. As patients we do suffer, often at the hands of the profession. However, I’m amazed that this is the word that they prefer. Surely, suffering is not the image that they want to create?

      • Good point. Many of my business colleagues used customer or client in casual conversation. I never really understood if they were being facetious or not.. More than likely it was just their normal business speak.
        I had always assumed the word patient to be appropriate as it was generally the case that people I saw and treated presented suffering. It’s a fairly modern concept that much of medicine now prides itself on prevention. In this respect your observation is more appropriate?

  3. Puzzled by, “…clicking on all cylinders..”, Firing yes; clicking? No. This a specifically leftpondian variation?

  4. Your parenthetical reference to “punt” — from American football — reminds me of the closest British equivalent, “to kick it into the long grass”, meaning to get rid of it and hope it doesn’t come back.

    • I always thought that it was:

      “Hit into the long grass” – golf or cricket.
      “Kicked into touch” — rugby.

      But apparently not.

  5. I’d heard “punching above one’s weight” used to describe someone doing better romantically than they should have; ie, with a more attractive partner than expected.

  6. Matthew Brannigan

    Many thanks for the good info here – I always thought that ‘punter’ was just a generic term for a customer and was irish in origin where, before adoption of the Euro, the currency was the Punt, Gaelic for pound.

  7. Worth mentioning also that ‘punt’ also describes a kick in rugby, where a player kicks the ball forward without it hitting the ground first, see the BBC website here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/rugby_union/skills/4197860.stm
    I have no idea whether the word came from rugby before it was used in American Football though.
    I’ve also never heard of a ‘punter’s chance’ before. I think it is a very rare phrase.

  8. I’ve never heard it either. Years ago I worked in William Hill’s head office, dealing with credit accounts, taking telephone bets from regular high-stake punters, and settling bets, mostly on the horses and dogs. I took lessons from an old bookie beforehand so I knew the jargon and the various forms of bets but that wasn’t a term I recall ever hearing. Having a punt or taking a punt is common today as taking a chance or risk and not just a bet. As you say, punter is widely used to mean customer. I would take issue with its meaning being “particularly” to do with prostitution – that’s merely one particular instance of its use within the general meaning of a customer, albeit a common enough one. It may also be used beyond the meaning of paying customer, as in, for example, referring to the general electorate as punters or the individual voter as the ordinary punter.

  9. There’s also the BrE phrase “worth a punt”, a typical recommendation in the vocabulary of a racing tipster. Oddly, there seems to be a US horse called Worth A Punt (http://www.skysports.com/racing/form-profiles/horse/516131/worth-a-punt)

  10. I don’t recognise ‘punter’s chance’ as an expression. Punter is a derogatory term, meaning loser, someone who bets and, on the whole, loses, but even a punter wins occasionally, and unexpectedly.

  11. No it isn’t, Bob – it used to mean a gambler, usually on the horses, but now it just means a paying customer. Like Catherine Rose, I’m a musician, and audience members (those paying for services) are usually described by musicians (those providing the services) as the punters – they’re punting (betting) on having a good time for their money.

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