I have heard this expression before, many times. I have even used it once or twice. But after a few minutes of thought, I realized how absurd the expression is. That is, from a logical and rhetorical perspective. I realized it today and laughed out loud at the thought of what the expression really means, and the mentality of those who think/thought it makes sense (myself included).
The first word, “if”, introduces a conditional statement – your typical if-then argument. As a conditional statement, if the statement on whole were true, its consequent (the then part) can only be taken seriously if the antecedent (the if part) were also true. Its a common, and even famous syllogism known as modus ponens.
Similarly (although off-topic for my purposes) if the conditional statement were true as a statement unto itself, and the conclusion were false then we may deduce that the antecedent is also false. Another syllogism called the modus tollens.
If conclusions are drawn that do not follow the above two patterns, we have one of two common fallacies of reason: affirming the consequent and denying the antecedent. That is, if the conditional statement were true. And if the conditional statement were false, nothing can be concluded – but then why would it be said?
So, it stands to reason that, “if I were a betting man…”, whatever I may say next can be taken as a general truth (within the limits of probablistic reasoning of the gamble – also off-topic), strictly if I were a betting man. And if I was not a betting man, then whatever I may have said after that is easily disregarded.
I realized this today that with this conditional if-then statement, the idiom only makes sense, logically, if you know the speaker is a betting man. Then its a modus ponens syllogism and not a denial of the antecedent.
Oh, but wait…
If the speaker were a betting man, wouldnt he just say “I’d bet…” and not “If I was a betting man…”? Why would a betting man include additional words and complicate a sentence with the conditional if it were a truth about himself? If the antecedent were a truth, implicit or inherent to ones character, why make it a conditional statement? Why would a betting man who was sure about the truth not be willing to actually place the bet? It seems rather deceptive, if not hypocritical, if you ask me.
If you arent a betting man, all you are doing is overtly exhibiting confidence in the conclusion through language in the hopes of swaying your listener, but logically you arent saying anything worthwhile. You’d might as well have remained quiet or simply said “I dont know”.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that the expression “If I were a betting man” implies that you are not a betting man.
So what does that say about the conclusion? That it holds just as much water as anything else you might have said?
American idioms, annoyingly amusing. It makes me thankful that English is my first language.