Q: Do you have any idea when people began wishing other people “good luck” in a backhanded way that suggests the outcome isn’t likely or especially lucky?
A: People have been wishing one another “good luck” in the ordinary—that is, the non-sarcastic way—for many hundreds of years.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for “good luck” used as a regular noun phrase (rather than as a salutation) is from William Caxton’s translation of The History of Reynard the Fox (1481): “Tho thought reynart, this is good luck.”
By its very nature, the salutation “Good luck!” is more often spoken than committed to writing. But this citation, from Miles Coverdale’s 1535 translation of the Bible, hints at a spoken usage offstage:
“The kynges seruauntes are gone in to wysh good lucke vnto oure lorde kynge Dauid.”
And here’s a written example from the early 19th century, with “good luck” directed at a country instead of a person. It’s from a letter written by Eleanor Cavanaugh, who was traveling in Russia, to her father back home in Ireland:
“‘Well to be sure,’ sais I. ‘Russia! & good luck to you, you are a comical place!’ ” (The letter is quoted in The Russian Journals of Martha and Catherine Wilmot, written in 1803-08 and published in 1934. Eleanor was Catherine’s maidservant.)
We can’t tell you when people began using the phrase sarcastically or doubtfully, as if the result were unlikely to be good. But a little googling suggests that it’s a fairly recent phenomenon.
When delivered sarcastically, “Good luck!” (or “Good luck with that!”) isn’t meant literally. It means, more or less, “Yeah, sure” or “Fat chance.”
Examples would be “Good luck beating me at arm-wrestling!” and “You’ve decided to fight City Hall? Good luck with that!”
Either the speaker is doubtful that that such a thing will happen, or hopes it won’t.
As far as we can tell, none of the published references in the OED’s entry for “good luck” convey this kind of doubt or sarcasm.
However, a citation in the entry for “black” as an adjective suggests such a usage. The quotation is about dangerous ski runs.
Here’s the reference, from the Feb. 25, 1973, issue of the Chicago Tribune: “Slopes marked red correspond to expert runs in the United States, and the black runs, well … good luck!”
We made a cursory search of our own and turned up this example, from an exchange between two characters in Gwyneth Cravens’s novel Speed of Light (1979):
“ ‘One person could warn another, with the provision that the information be retold in exactly the same way.’ ‘Good luck with that,’ he said, ‘No—another way had to be found.’ ”
And here’s another example, from Jonathan Carroll’s novel A Child Across the Sky (1990): “Philip Strayhorn wanted to be a very famous man but stay private, live his own life. Good luck with that, as we all know.”
Finally, David Letterman used the phrase in a whimsical way when he said goodbye to Al Gore at the end of the Vice President’s appearance on the Late Show in 1993: “Good luck with that government thing.”
We’ve found several discussions of the sarcastic “Good luck!” on blogs, but nothing that would pin down an origin or a chronology.
Interestingly, there are similar usages in Yiddish, where A glick ahf dir (Good luck to you) is sometimes used sarcastically, and A glick hot dir getrofen (A piece of luck happened to you) is used in the sense of “Big deal!”
But we’ve seen no suggestion from authoritative sources that the sarcastic English sense was influenced by these Yiddish expressions.
Again, the earliest examples of this usage we’ve found are from the early 1970s. We’re not saying there aren’t earlier ones. We invite you to do some googling of your own—and good luck with that!
Check out our books about the English language