Q&A: The origin of “odds”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, odd ones out…

Q: Hi AWC, I have an odd question for you.

A: We’ll try to provide an even-handed answer.

Q: So, why do we call the chances of something happening “odds”? It seems a little, well… odd!

A: Yes, it’s a good question. Not odd at all.

Q: I know, right?

A: Any guesses why they’re called odds?

Q: Maybe it’s to do with early betting games and guessing between odd or even numbered things?

A: Not a bad guess, but no. The term “odds” actually dates back to Shakespearan times – and the bard himself.

Q: Who, Jarrod?

A: No, William Shakespeare! Who’s Jarrod?

Q: Just a guy at my local pub we nicknamed “the bard”. Never mind. Your answer is better. Carry on.

A: Okay, so Shakespeare coined the term in his play, Henry IV, Part II. – written between 1596 and 1599.

Q: Set in a hospital?

A: No. A palace, a tavern… no hospitals.

Q: Ah, sorry. The “IV” part confused me. Please continue.

A: Throughout the 1500s, the concept of “odds” had been taking hold – used to describe unequal things, matters, or conditions. It was applied to situations where things didn’t always come out “even”. 

Q: Odds are things that don’t come out even – it all makes sense really!

A: English occasionally does.

Q: Very occasionally.

A: Anyway, by the 1580s, “odds” were thought of as the chance or balance of probability in favour of something happening. It was only a matter of time before someone applied this to a friendly wager – the context which Shakespeare used in Henry IV, Part II

Q: Someone puts a same-day multi on the fifth race at Randwick?

A: Not quite. But in the closing scene, the character of Lancaster “lays odds” of something happening within the year. 

Q: Shakespeare: Long may we play!

A: Ah, because “long may we play” is currently a betting company’s slogan AND Shakespeare wrote plays. Hilarious.

Q: You must be fun at parties…

A: By the way, another phrase also used a lot in both parts of Henry IV was characters being “at odds” with each other. This had also only just become a phrase during the 1580s – meaning to be in disagreement or variance. The latter hinting once more at this sense of inequality or difference.

Q: What about if you’re the “odds-on favourite”

A: This phrase essentially means that you’re expected to win – “on which the odds are laid” by betters. It’s turned up much later, in the very late 1800s.

Q: What about “against all odds”?

A: Do you mean the 1984 Phil Collins hit song written for the far-less-memorable movie of the same name starring Rachel Ward, Jeff Bridges and James Woods?

Q: Um, no. Just the phrase.

A: Ah okay. The phrase – sometimes also “against the odds” – simply means “despite success being unlikely”. For example, “Against all odds, the team came out on top”.

Q: Doesn’t sound like they were the odds-on favourite…

A: No it doesn’t. According to Idioms Online, the phrase will have started with betting, again likely during the 1800s and probably horse racing, before expanding to a more figuratively meaning relating to doing something contrary to expectation.

Q: It would seem that against all odds, you have answered my question today!

A: Hmmmm, not sure that’s the right way to use it. We were surely the odds-on favourite to get to the bottom of your query.

Q: Well, it seems we may be at odds over that. Agree to disagree?

A: Ugh.

Q: So to recap, “odds” are basically synonymous with “chances” – the likelihood of something happening. Since the late 1500s, they’ve been applied to wagering and more recently we’ve seen idioms that relate to both  being the favourite AND succeeding despite NOT being favoured.

A: Correct!

Q: Can I ask one last “odd” question? Why is it called an “odd job”?

A: According to Online Etymology Dictionary, this version of “odd” dates back to 1728, relating to a particular task that was “not regular”. So an “odd job” was considered a “casual, disconnected piece of work”. Hence why doing “odd jobs around the house” are just a bunch of random tasks – not regular ones.

Q: So it’s nothing to do with explaining why I only completed the odd-numbered tasks, like job 1, 3, 5…?

A: That excuse might work, but we wouldn’t bet on it!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

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