fortune, chance

Dear word sommelier: At a recent graduation ceremony I attended, a speaker referred to “fortune and chance.” Aren’t they the same thing?

A person could be forgiven for thinking the two words are merely synonyms. After all, if we turn to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of fortune includes the word chance and vice-versa. But there are greater nuances. As I’ve often said, words are known by the company they keep. So let us have a look in another Oxford book, Oxford Collocations

Fortune has made an interesting trail from its transparent origin, the Latin word fortuna – which is related to fors “chance” and ferre “bear” (verb). Do you recognize the Latin phrase “O Fortuna”? It’s the opening words of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, and the song descants on fortune, which is visualized as a wheel, carrying people up high and casting them down. This is where we get Wheel of Fortune from.

And this image helped construct fortune as something that was not simply chance but fate. You can go to a fortune teller to see if you will be fortunate in life; you can go out to try your fortune or seek your fortune or make your fortune. Your fortune, originally, is your lot as represented by your standing in life; of course, from that it’s a small step to the sense “money, wealth” – because that’s generally how one makes one’s fortune.

So make your fortune and, even moreso, make a fortune now refer to riches. You can amass a fortune or build up a fortune, or you can inherit a fortune if someone leaves you a fortune. And Fortune is a magazine about money, which means about business; if you are on the Fortune 500 you have it made. It? Your fortune. Just as long as you do not encounter some unfortunate misfortune and suffer a reversal of fortunes as your company’s fortunes rise and fall and otherwise fluctuate, causing you to lose your fortune. You want fame and fortune; you do not want to be, as Shakespeare’s Romeo was, fortune’s fool.

Chance, on the other hand, has as a word been changed more by time and tide; it came by way of French from Latin cadentia “falling” (noun), from cadere “fall” – hmm, bear vs. fall. It is how things fall out, how the chips fall, how it all falls into place. But no one will tell your chance in the same way as they tell your fortune.

No, chance is typically purely stochastic, aleatory; we have games of chance. There may be a slight chance, perhaps a million-to-one chance, of winning, but you’ll chance it (note the verb form; fortune does not exist as a verb). You may succeed through sheer chance, but you’ll do what it takes to boost your chances, and you certainly don’t want to spoil your chance. But take your chance – you don’t want to lose your chance. Chance is opportunity. But not fully controllable; there is always an element of chance.

At the same time, chance can be subject to the decision of a person: Is there a chance you could – ? You can give someone a fighting chance or a sporting chance; there’s a fair chance you might even give them a second chance. After all, they deserve a chance; given a chance, they’ll jump at the chance if you’ll just take a chance on them.

If you look at the trees on Visual Thesaurus, you will see that chance has rather more connections – it is used more, generally – but while both words connect to a sense of “an unknown or unpredictable phenomenon that causes an event to result one way rather than another”, fortune also connects to a similar node but with positive outcome specified (as does luck), and to one for “your overall circumstances or condition in life”, and to one for wealth or prosperity. Chance, on the other hand, connects with possibilities, opportunities, threats, and measures of likelihood – plus the several senses of the verb: taking risks, happening upon something, occurring randomly.

Of these two words, then, fortune seems to be the banker in the bowtie, and chance the ragamuffin in the po’ boy cap. You get some of the feel of that, too, in the shapes of the words on the page and perhaps in their sound and feel. Fortune starts with that soft, lofty f; it moves to a smooth liquid /r/ and then breaks into a second syllable that has more of a bite and sound of coins to it. But that bite and sound of coins – the voiceless alveopalatal affricate, /tʃ/ “ch”, followed by a softer ring of a nasal /n/ – is what you get front and centre with chance, without the softening extra syllable to start with, but with a full-value vowel and an extra fricative /s/ at the end to leave off with a hiss, more strident than the soft opening /f/ in fortune.

Test all this out, sense, sound, feel. Swap the words in a few phrases. Obviously you do not amass a chance or look for fame and chance, but do you say your chances rise and fall or that you’ve had a reversal of chance? And you don’t take your fortune on games of fortune (though cards can be used for chance or fortune); you don’t talk about an element of fortune; obviously you don’t give someone a second fortune. And it would be odd indeed to say “Ya pays yer money, ya takes yer fortunes.” Or, on the other hand, to try to win on Wheel of Chance. ABBA may have made a fortune with “Take a Chance on Me,” but they wouldn’t have made a chance with “Take a Fortune on Me.”

One response to “fortune, chance

  1. As luck would have it, I never chanced to make a fortune.

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