A Chip On Your Shoulder

Meaning:

Being angry about something that happened in the past; holding a grudge.

This is a common phrase that is used to describe people who remain upset over problems they’ve experienced in the past.

Example: Alex had a chip on his shoulder ever since one of his coworkers took his lunch out of the fridge and ate it without his permission. (In other words, Alex was angry at his coworker ever since this incident.)

Synonyms / Related Phrases:
1. Foaming at the mouth
2. Having a bone to pick
3. Up in arms

The Origin Of “A Chip On Your Shoulder”

The ‘chip’ in this phrase is not referring to potato chips, even though it is funny to imagine someone walking around with a bag of them on their shoulders. Rather, the ‘chip’ here refers to a piece of timber, or wood.

Timber can be long and heavy, which makes it difficult to carry around from place to place, especially if all that carrying is being done with only our hands. Lifting the timber up onto our shoulders can make it a lot easier to lug around. Anyways, besides carrying wood, there was another, more violent reason on why people would put timber up on their shoulder. Listen to this:

From what I’ve read, there apparently was a time when people (and by the sounds of it, they were angry) would literally place a chip on their shoulder. The reason for this was to show that they were looking for a fight. Indeed, with the wood, or ‘chip’ placed firmly on one of their shoulders, they would dare others to knock it off. Anyone who wanted to accept the proposed challenge could do so, and a fight would occur shortly after.

This sort of behavior was described in some newspapers from the 19th century. For example, the Long Island Telegraph newspaper, printed on May 20th, 1830, wrote 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.”

Another example, from the same year, is written in the Onondaga Standard of Syracuse newspaper, New York, 1830:

“‘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 of the soundest thrashings he ever had.'”

So it would seem that this is where the phrase originates from.


Example Sentences:

Here are two examples of this idiom being used in a sentence:

  • Do you still have a chip on your shoulder because of what happened last week?
  • Rachel acts strange whenever her friend is around. It must be that argument they had last week. I think she still has a chip on her shoulder over it.