chip on his shoulder

Definition: An angry outlook fostered by a grievance, grudge, or low self-esteem.

Example: “Don’t mind him,” Lois told her secretary. “John’s got a chip on his shoulder since I beat him in the hot dog eating competition.”


First of all, chips aren’t sexist. They can sit on her shoulder as easily as his.

Secondly, the chip referred to is a wood chip, not one made of deep fried potato, nor the kind Iddy models here, a silicon chip.

As for the chip’s origin, there appear to be two possibilities:

  1. In the 1700s, dockyard workers in England had job benefits other workers did not. They were allowed to take scrap wood from the construction and repair of ships home, for construction or firewood. Specifically, the Navy Council declared in 1739 that they could remove as much as they could carry upon their shoulder (subject to inspection by their superiors, of course). Later, that allowance was reduced to as much as they could carry under one arm. This became a grievance among the dockers. So, it appears we have all the elements needed to form our idiom. Chips. Shoulders. Grievances. One little hitch though. There is close to 200 years between this episode and the arrival of our phrase around 1930.
  2. It is more likely it is derived from  manly shenanigans in the US during the 1800s. There was a custom of placing a small piece of wood (or chip) upon your shoulder and daring others to knock it off, followed by more serious fighting involving fists, kicks, and broken teeth. Sounds very entertaining. Remember. These fellows didn’t have 94 episodes of Sex and the City to entertain them.

Iddy had a very difficult time illustrating this idiom. Mainly because he really doesn’t have shoulders….

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