Valentine’s chip on shoulder: how idioms originate

Bad day...

As it’s Valentine’s Day, I was remembering one of the less romantic dates of my early dating life.

I think it was the second date and Charles had asked to “see my etchings”.

The unromantic prelude to this great event was the sharing of a plate of chips. Two remained on the plate, and I said to Charles, “You can have them, one for each shoulder,” smiling at my own wit.

However, the joke was lost on Charles, and any thought to seeing my etchings was quickly distinguished. I sunk into the passenger seat of his car, and licked my salty fingers as he drove me home in silence.

A chip on one’s shoulder is loosely defined as having an angry attitude all the time and feeling that you are being unfairly treated.

According to the phrase means:

  • holding a grudge or grievance
  • a perceived sense of inferiority
  • being angry because of something that happened in the past
  • an habitually combative attitude
  • to take offence easily
  • Fighting spirit

It’s thought to have originated in the US in the 1800s when people who wanted to get into a fight would walk around with wooden chips on their shoulders, looking for a challenger to knock them off.

“In my humble opinion, the ‘chips on shoulders’ report dating from 1756 refer literally to just that, chips carried on shoulders. There’s no evidence at all to suggest ‘a chip on one’s shoulder’ existed as a figurative phrase until the 19th century,” says

However, there has been discussion about its naval origins where carrying wooden chips on board was seen as some kind of privilege.

Today, it’s a well-known phrase in the English language and perhaps unlike me, be careful with how you use it.

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