The origin of ‘chip on your shoulder’

From dockyard to schoolyard: learn the origin of ‘chip on your shoulder’.

Boxing gloves hanging over a shoulder symbolizing the origins of the chip on your shoulder

Have you ever become so angry that you can’t let it go? Perhaps you often feel wronged by others, regret something from the past or you’re always on the lookout for a good argument.

We often describe this as having a ‘chip on your shoulder’. It’s a nice phrase to describe a not-so-nice feeling, but where did it originate?

The origin of this idiom is most likely English and dates back to the 18th century. At this time in the Royal Navy Dockyards, it was customary for ship carpenters to be allowed to take home timber offcuts from the day’s work. But by the 1750s, the rule had changed to prevent workers abusing the privilege – and offcuts could only be as much as one could carry under their arms, instead of over their shoulders.

The phrase was also used in America as early as the 19th century but for a slightly different purpose. The story goes that if someone was looking to fight, they would place a woodchip on their shoulder and walk around daring someone to knock it off. If the challenge was accepted, a fight could go ahead. This mirrored a custom from the medieval era, where one ‘threw down the gauntlet’ (glove) to indicate to their foe that they wished to fight.

On May 20 1830, the Long Island Telegraph printed the first recorded use of the phrase:

“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.”

A similar statement published in the same year in the New York-based Onondaga Standard of Syracuse said:

“‘He waylay me,’ said I, ‘the mean sneaking fellow – I am only afraid that he will sue me for damages. Oh! If I only could get him to knock a chip off my shoulder, and so get round the law, I would give him one the soundest thrashings he ever had’.”

Have you ever had an unexpected run-in with someone looking to stir trouble? Perhaps it’s time we reinstated woodchips on shoulders – so we can safely avoid those spoiling for a fight.

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