What would be the meaning of the following sentence:

  • He's a man with a knife and a main chance.

Could it be something like "He had both means and a motive?"

I encountered it watching crime series on TV (and no, I did not misheard it, as I checked subtitles). The house of a man who recently bought it burns down in an apparent arson. Two police officers have following dialog:

A: Chris thinks arson.

B: An insurance job?

A: Had you heard Dennis Costello recently bought the place?

B: No. I hadn't heard that. But then again, he's not short of a few bob. He's a man with a knife and a main chance.

A: Still trying to figure out what the main chance is here.


2 Answers 2


OP has misheard the text. The idiomatic expression is...

To have an eye for the main chance
(See example usage in Collins Dictionary)
the main chance = the opportunity for personal gain
to have an eye for = to be good at spotting

So it's He's a man with an eye for the main chance (5000 hits in Google Books). Note the change from a main chance to the main chance there. Either OP has mistranscribed that part too, or his cited source is nns/dialectal (or OP was reading substandard subtitles).

OR... it's an exceptionally contrived "pun". I kinda doubt that, but perhaps if OP provided a link to the source we could check it out. Nevertheless, if that were the case, I think it would be utterly pointless to speculate on the possible meaning of the "replacement" words. To all intents and purposes, they'd only be there because they sound close enough to the original that native speakers would catch the idiomatic allusion.

  • Writers often change clichés to suit their own needs. That's what writing is all about....
    – Lambie
    Jan 30, 2018 at 14:31
  • 1
    @Lambie: True, but let's not forget puns are the lowest form of wit. If we get access to the original source it might well turn out to be a pun (it's certainly transcribed as such in the subtitles), but in practice puns aren't really relevant to learners (they'll never understand many of them no matter how much effort they put in, and the "returns" aren't usually worth the effort anyway). Even the natives usually just groan, when someone comes out with a pun. Jan 30, 2018 at 14:45
  • I disagree that the OP misheard the text and also disagree re puns and/or writing. Advertising and writing is all about not using clichés. So, all language learners have to get used to all this. Even in their native languages.
    – Lambie
    Jan 30, 2018 at 15:13
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers : I disagree. The lowest form of wit is actually poop. Jan 30, 2018 at 16:57

Since this is from a UK show ("not short of a few bob" gives it away), I'm going to have to make an educated guess. According to a dictionary of UK slang, the full idiomatic expression is:

An eye on the main chance: referring to someone who is ambitious and eager to promote their own advancement.

There are three elements to proving someone did a crime: means, motive, and opportunity. Respectively, these refer to: the ability of the defendant to commit the crime (means), the reason the defendant committed the crime (motive), and whether the defendant had the chance to commit the crime (opportunity).

Assuming FumbleFingers is incorrect and the phrase really is, "a knife and a main chance" instead of "an eye on the main chance", then I can only assume "knife" is a metaphor for the means, and "the main chance" refers to the motive. Saying "he had a knife" to mean "he had the means" is an odd way to refer to an arson crime -- it seems more appropriate for a homicide -- but it's hard to imagine it could be anything else.

It just goes to show you can't entirely trust subtitles.

  • Yes, it is a way to breathe new life into a cliché. :)
    – Lambie
    Jan 30, 2018 at 14:32

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