chip on one's shoulder

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The saying originated during the 19th century in the United States, where people wanting a physical fight would carry a chip of wood on their shoulder, daring others to knock it off. Printed citations of this include the Long Island Telegraph, which on May 20th, 1830, printed: "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."[1]


chip on one's shoulder

  1. A form of challenge, in the same spirit as a medieval knight throwing down his gauntlet.
    • 1830, The Onondaga Standard, Syracuse NY, 8 December:
      ‘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.’
    • 1855, The Weekly Oregonian:
      Leland, in his last issue, struts out with a chip on his shoulder, and dares Bush to knock it off.
  2. (idiomatic) A habitually combative attitude, usually because of a harboured grievance, sense of inferiority, or having something to prove.
    • 1906, Harold MacGrath, Half A Rogue, ch. 4:
      The city of Herculaneum . . . held its neighbors in hearty contempt, like the youth who has suddenly found his man's strength, and parades round with a chip on his shoulder.
    • 2008, James Carney and Michael Grunwald, "Understanding John McCain," Time, 28 Aug.:
      The young John McCain was a constant breaker of rules, a brawler and a slob, an undersize punk with an oversize chip on his shoulder.
  3. (idiomatic) A tendency to take offence quickly.

Usage notes[edit]

  • Usage over time changed, now suggesting somebody who shows a belligerent attitude, acting as though he or she was asking for a fight. The chip is now figurative, but the idea remains the same.

Derived terms[edit]


  1. ^ The Answer Bank (