words : Odds

Eddie George had shortened the odds on a rise in interest rates, the Guardian said last week. Its economics editor plainly knew something about betting, and assumed that everyone else did too, or we wouldn't have been offered the sporting metaphor. And why not? We are a sporting nation. We talk about dark horses and call our customers punters and ask bossy people to stop shouting the odds. Difficult books are "hard-going". Candidates losing at the first ballot are said to have fallen at the first fence, while more successful colleagues are "nearly home" - it's the language of the Turf, happily accepted by those who have never been to a race meeting. Nor do you have to be a football fan to start a business conference with a "Let's kick off" or a frustrated golfer to complain about being stymied.

Odds has been a betting term since the late 16th century - perhaps before that, but the earliest example found by the OED's helpers was from Henry IV, Part 2.

Odds had started as a singular noun meaning "something odd" (in the way "news" means something new), odd itself being used of a number which hadn't a pair to match it, so odds went on to mean an inequality, hence a difference (as in "What odds does it make?"). In betting, therefore, - and the principle was the same in the 16th century - the odds are the difference between the bet laid and the possible return from it. By the end of that century odds also meant simply "chances" ("The odds are that..."). The Guardian was really only saying that the chances of an interest rate hike were increasing, but it was nice to feel that there was a bit of a gamble in it.

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