A Chip on Your Shoulder (Origin)

by Craig Shrives

What Is the Origin of the Saying "A Chip on Your Shoulder"?

The term "to have a chip on your shoulder" means being upset about something that happened in the past. More specifically, it means to hold a grudge for a past event or treatment.

"To have a chip on one's shoulder" originates in the US. It comes from the boyhood practice of spoiling for a fight by carrying a chip of wood on the shoulder and daring others to knock it off. In 1830, New York newspaper "The Long Island Telegraph" printed the following:
  • "When two churlish boys were determined to fight, a chip would be placed on the shoulder of one, and the other demanded to knock it off at his peril."
In 1952, the Vermont newspaper "The North Star" draws an analogy between the conduct of US abolitionists Theodore Parker and William Garrison and "the Irishman who went through town with a chip on his shoulder, anxious to have a fight, and shouting, 'Arrah, will none of ye knock the chip off me shoulder!'" Even though it is used literally (i.e., there was literally a chip on the Irishman's shoulder), this is among the first recorded uses of the term "a chip on his shoulder." Of course, the term is used figuratively these days.
A Chip on Your Shoulder (Origin)

Competing Theory

The term "to have a chip on your shoulder" comes from the British Royal Dockyards in the 18th century. Back then, ship workers (called shipwrights) were permitted, as a perk of the job, to carry "chips" (pieces of wood for fuel or building) home after work. This perk is recorded in Royal Navy Board standing order dated August 1739:
  • "Shipwrights to be allowed to bring [chips] on their shoulders near to the dock gates, there to be inspected by officers."
However, in May 1753, this rule was amended to state that ship workers could only remove chips under one arm, thereby limiting the amount they could carry. Some three years later, an increasingly disgruntled work force at Chatham Dockyard mounted a strike against work conditions. Part of their protest included a mass walk-out, carrying chips on their shoulders in the prohibited manner.

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See Also

What are idioms? What is figurative language? A list of common grammar errors A list of easily confused words A list of sayings and proverbs

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