I just discovered a new phrase and, as is my wont, am sharing it with the world, or at least that portion of the world as ignorant as I (I quote the OED s.v. hiding “A flogging, thrashing, beating”):

to be on a hiding to nothing, to be faced with a situation in which any outcome would be unfavourable or in which success is impossible, spec. (app. orig. in Horse-racing) that of being expected to win easily, so that one gains no credit from victory, and is disgraced by defeat. Cf. TO prep. 19a [Connecting the names of two things (usu. numbers or quantities) compared or opposed to each other in respect of amount or value, as the odds in a wager or contest, the terms of a ratio, or the constituents of a compound: Against, as against. 1530 PALSGR. 712/1 Twenty to one he is ondone for ever…].
1905 A. M. BINSTEAD Mop Fair xi. 193 They will, like the man who was on a hiding to nothing the first time Tom Sayers saw him, ‘take it lying down’. 1964 C. P. SNOW Corridors of Power ii. 17 He wanted to get out of his present job as soon as he had cleaned it up a little—‘This is a hiding to nothing,’ he said simply—and back to the Treasury. 1975 Sunday Times 8 June 28/2 The Indian batsmen were on a hiding to nothing. They could not win. 1977 Times 29 Jan. 10/7 Derby know they are on a hiding to nothing at Fourth Division Colchester, who have a reputation as giant-killers. 1980 Spectator 8 Mar. 3/1 Lord Soames would have been on a hiding to nothing in trying to exercise gubernatorial authority and viceregal judgment.

It’s an extremely useful phrase; I guess “no-win situation” comes close, but it isn’t nearly as colorful.


  1. Thanks, LH. I had no idea that this phrase was not universally common in all Englishes. Now if I use it when speaking to Nth American friends I can direct them here for edification.

  2. Edification, distraction, and folderol!

  3. Is that like ambition, distraction, uglification, and derision?

  4. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t?

  5. Like Stuart, I’m very surprised that it isn’t a widely known phrase in America because it’s commonplace in the UK. I’ve just done a quick search of the Guardian newspaper website and found over 100 examples of it, most recently from this week:
    “Later that day, with his communications manager Joanna Manning-Cooper, there is a discussion about whether he should join a hostile Evening Standard debate on the subject. Manning-Cooper believes he will be on a hiding to nothing…”
    Sometimes when writing for other English-speaking readerships I and my colleagues are told to be careful of assuming that phrases will be routinely understood, for example write “19th century England” rather than “Victorian England” but “on a hiding to nothing” would have slipped underneath my guard (is that a fencing or cricketing term?).
    But there’s always a danger in easily assuming that people have had the same experiences that you do. I recently met a Canadian in his 40s who was going on a train for the first time in his life while visiting England, and that astonished me enormously.

  6. “Between a rock and a hard place”? “Between the devil and the deep blue sea?” (assuming that deep blue sea is a bad thing).

  7. rootlesscosmo says

    I don’t think those familiar ones capture this (to me) very narrowly drawn idea, which is that you get little or no benefit from the easy win and substantial harm from the less likely, but possible, loss. The situation comes up in boxing, where a fighter with a good record and good prospects is matched against a less-skilled, but dangerous, opponent. A phrase you’ll hear (in the poolroom too) is “You’re supposed to beat this guy,” or “This is one you’re not allowed to lose” But those don’t have the economy of “on a hiding to nothing.” Nice idiom.

  8. tomwootton says

    Very frequently used by English football commentators, in fact almost exclusively so, it can seem at times. Like the word ‘aplomb’.

  9. Hobson’s choice ?
    I also found in writing for US readers that I should not use the expression “there’s no question of …”, as it has opposite meanings on each side of the pond. Like “tabling” a Bill.

  10. I don’t think things like ‘between a rock and a hard place’ capture the meaning.
    I would use ‘on a hiding to nothing’ to describe an activity that was a waste of time and energy. It is in a sense a no-win situation, but not necessarily one you’re trapped in.
    I can’t think of the right alternative idiom, though there must be one.

  11. Try this one (from Australia):
    “I/you/we have(n’t) got Buckley’s (chance)”
    To tell someone they have no hope of achieving something just say “You’ve got Buckley’s mate!”
    For discussion see http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/51/messages/978.html

  12. michael farris says

    Had I come across ‘hiding to nothing’ in context I’d probably assume it meant something like ‘extreme punishment’ or ‘wild goose chase’ until forced to think otherwise.
    On opposite interpretations: I once heard a British eurosport announcer describe a performance as “scarcely credible” and it took me a moment to realize he meant it as a compliment, in USian it sounds like harsh criticism.
    The first description of the meaning sounds a lot like the ‘deep play’ concept of Bentham as used by Clifford Geertz in his famous essay on Balinese cockfighting: “play in which the stakes are so high that it is, from his utilitarian standpoint, irrational for men to engage in it at all”

  13. It’s funny, some U.K. expressions are fairly well known over here, like “Bob’s your uncle,” and some, like this one, are completely unknown. (I may well be contradicted by fellow Yanks who say “no, I’ve known about it forever,” in which case I will have learned something.)

  14. mollymooly says

    Google just asked if I meant “on a heading to nothing”, even though “~hiding~” has 46000 hits and “~heading~” has 0.

  15. For what it’s worth– I’m sure I’ve never seen the phrase before, and I’ve been reading Brit newspapers and magazines for a long time. Maybe it’s some sort of sports-guy talk– it’s fair to say that my attention wanders when the subject turns to ‘football’ or, God forbid, cricket.

  16. fimus scarabaeus says

    Thanks, that was a yorker, never saw it coming before. A brainwashed Limey that failed the test.

  17. John Atkinson says

    Peter Austin:
    >Try this one (from Australia):
    >”I/you/we have(n’t) got Buckley’s (chance)”
    >To tell someone they have no hope of achieving
    >something just say “You’ve got Buckley’s mate!”
    Or: “You’ve got two chances — Buckley’s and none.”
    I too thought this was exclusively Australian, but in the early nineties I was riding in a bus in western Kenya listening to a group of Indian girls in the seat in front discussing their male friends in Swahili (which I could just understand). Referring to one of them who was apparently trying to crack on to her, one girl said: “He’s got Buckley’s.”

  18. Crown, A. J. says

    Looking up Buckley’s on Wiki I get,
    Buckley’s mixture … (from) a Canadian corporation founded in 1920, by W.K. Buckley, that manufactures medicines for…the common cold.
    There is no cure for the common cold.

  19. So they have Buckley’s chance of curing it.

  20. Crown, A. J. says

    Yes. There’s Buckley’s chance the Canadians are selling much of it in Australia, anyway.

  21. Crown, A. J. says

    Actually, this reminds me of the 1960s aspirin advertisement on British television “Nothing works faster than Anodin!” To which David Frost replied, “So try nothing”.

  22. The equivalent USian phrase is “stands to gain nothing and lose a lot”.

  23. Having gotten to this old post via the random link, I remember what bothered me about the explanation:

    Cf. TO prep. 19a [Connecting the names of two things (usu. numbers or quantities) compared or opposed to each other in respect of amount or value, as the odds in a wager or contest, the terms of a ratio, or the constituents of a compound: Against, as against. 1530 PALSGR. 712/1 Twenty to one he is ondone for ever…].

    Yes, but why “on a hiding to nothing”? How does the preposition work? Given the “Twenty to one” analogy, it seems it should be something like “The odds are a hiding to nothing” or “It’s a hiding to nothing.”

  24. David L. Gold says

    The (solely American English?) expression “go nowhere fast” is somewhat similar in meaning to “be on a hiding to nothing.”

  25. No, that’s not even close. It means you’re not going anywhere; the UK expression means you’re getting involved in a situation where winning is almost meaningless and losing will hurt you badly.

  26. PlasticPaddy says

    Since this apparently originated in horseracing circles I think they are saying “on a hiding to nothing” is used to signify “on odds of a hiding to nothing”. The word odds would normally go after the numbers, so a bet on twenty to one odds.

  27. Ah, that makes sense — thanks very much!

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