Buckley's Chance
[ Issue 21 ]

Buckley's Chance holds a lot of interest for Emily Bronto

Let Bikwil introduce you to Buckley's Chance

"Buckley's Chance"

Harlish Goop here explores a possible mid-nineteenth-century origin for a piece of very common Australian slang — You’ve got Buckley’s”.

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop


Bikwil has seen a number of discussions on the meanings and etymology of words — not only in this column, but also in R.K. Sadler’s occasional pieces Interesting Origins. And there are more to come. However, lest we get to expect that everything can be etymologically pinned down, let us remind ourselves that, try as they might, lexicographers now and then come up against words and phrases for which nothing conclusive can be discovered of their derivation.

James Murray’s policy with such items for the Oxford English Dictionary was as follows:

Of many words it has to be stated that their origin is either doubtful or altogether unknown. In such cases the historical facts are given, as far as they go, and their bearing occasionally indicated. But conjectural etymologies are rarely referred to, except to point out their agreement or disagreement with the historical facts; for these, and the full discussion which they require, the reader is referred to special treatises on etymology.

The problem is particularly vexing with slang, even in a country as young as Australia, where you’d perhaps assume that the derivation of all colloquialisms would be recorded. A good case in point is the Aussie expression Buckley’s, most commonly heard these days in the sceptical opinion “You’ve got Buckley’s”. This is an example of a word for which only conjectural etymologies seem to exist.

This is what OED2 has to say, for example:

Buckley’s. Austral. and N.Z. colloq. [Of uncertain origin.]
In full Buckley’s chance (or hope, etc.): a forlorn hope, no chance at all.

Macq2 puts it this way:

Buckley's. noun Colloquial
1 Also, Buckley's chance, Buckley's hope. a very slim chance; forlorn hope:
2 Buckley's and none, (humorous) two chances amounting to next to no chance.
[? from William BUCKLEY, influenced by the pun on the name of the former Melbourne department store, Buckley and Nunn]

G.A. Wilkes’ 1978 Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms (ISBN 0 00 635719 9) has this:

Buckley's chance (show, hope) A forlorn hope, no chance at all
[Origin obscure. Connections have been suggested with 'the wild white man' William Buckley, the convict who absconded from Port Phillip in 1803 and lived for thirty-two years with the natives. He gave himself up in 1835 and lived until 1856. Another suggested derivation is a pun on the name of the Melbourne firm of Buckley and Nunn.]

That sounds more like it. Or does it? Surprisingly, no quotations are given in any of the above dictionaries that are dated earlier than 1898 — The Bulletin (OED2), W. H. Ogilvie Fair Girls and Gray Horses (DAC).

Well, let’s have a look at some other dates, then. The Melbourne department store of Buckley and Nunn first opened its doors in 1851, and in its heyday was a store with as fine a reputation as David Jones (1838) or Farmers (1840) in Sydney.

It was especially popular with women of style. In 1914, for example, elegant frocks were the main feature of its mail order catalogue, and in 1939 it was happy to display chic female nightwear in its shop window. As early as 1912 it had been the acceptable cause of much congestion in Bourke Street outside its doors, as photos of the day show, and by the 1920s the Buckley and Nunn tastefully appointed tea room was one of the most fashionable meeting places for Melbourne ladies.

The name was thus a household phrase, and could well have served as the source of the Buckley’s and none pun. But only provided that William Buckley’s story had captured the public imagination already.

It sure had.

In 1802, after 14 years of progress with its colony in New South Wales (Sydney, Parramatta, Toongabbie, Windsor, Newcastle), the British Government had resolved to set up a new penal settlement in Bass Strait at Port Phillip Bay (the current site of Melbourne), and Lt-Col. David Collins was placed in charge.

Among the 300 convicts was William Buckley (1780-1856), who had been transported for receiving a bolt of cloth knowing it to be stolen. On Christmas Day, 1803, he and two others escaped. Soon they were starving and Buckley's companions decided to return to the settlement, but were never heard of again.

A month later, Collins, having already concluded that the site was unsuitable, departed with his prisoners to establish a settlement (now Hobart) in Van Dieman’s Land.

Buckley, in the meantime, had managed to survive by living off the land, and was soon made welcome by the Wathaurong-speaking Koories, whose country is around present-day Geelong.

Perhaps because of his pale skin colour and his height (he was nearly two metres tall), they regarded him as a reincarnated man of authority, a position that afforded him rights and also responsibilities. In the 32 years he spent with these people, he was taught their language and acquired an intimate, detailed knowledge of their ritual and customs. The tribe also gave him a wife.

In July 1835 Buckley surrendered to a survey party led by J. H. Wedge, in order to prevent some Aborigines from robbing a visiting ship and murdering the crew. By now Buckley had almost forgotten how to speak English and could only be identified by his initials tattooed on his arm.

Wedge thought Buckley would make a useful interpreter between the local Aborigines and Europeans, and managed to obtain a pardon for him.

As an interpreter, Buckley was no great success, but in the years to come he would grow to be famous as a guide for white settlers who wished to see the wonderful scenery along the Barwon River, particularly the Falls that now bear his name. Buckley's account of his time among the Wathaurong was published in 1852, and is an important source of information about the Aboriginal people in the region south-west of Melbourne.

In this way was the legend of Australia’s first wild white man born — a man whose chance of survival in the bush had indeed been “forlorn” and “slim”, but who beat the odds dramatically, and maybe even gave his name, not only to a waterfall, but more significantly for Australian sceptics and word lovers alike to the very idea of having all probabilities stacked against one.

Yes, I for one am happy to accept both of Wilkes’ conjectures.

How about you?

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