Has someone ever told you that you had a “chip on your shoulder”? Were you curious what they meant? Did you look down to see if somehow a crumb ended up there from your lunch?! Well, as an idiomatic expression, this saying doesn’t mean what it appears to mean—it has nothing to do with crispy, crunchy potato chips settling on your T-shirt or anything physically being on your shoulder at all, for that matter. Let’s explore the meaning of the phrase, as well as its suspected origin.
What Does Chip on Your Shoulder Mean?
If you have a chip on your shoulder, you have a bad attitude and get angry easily. This is because you feel like the world has wronged you in some way. You may hold a grudge against something or someone, say a person from your past who you believe treated you poorly or unfairly. Because you don’t feel you’ve been given fair treatment in life, and have perhaps adopted a perceived sense of inferiority, you have a negative attitude and outlook in general; you get easily offended and are always ready for difficulty or trouble. It could be said you’re always looking for a fight.
Here are some example sentences using the expression chip on your shoulder:
- You’ve had a chip on your shoulder ever since Mary got the lead role in the play and not you. You need to let it go, or your bad attitude may cost you the part you did land.
- It feels like I can’t say anything to you without you getting angry and upset. Why do you have such a chip on your shoulder?
- After my mom and dad got divorced, I couldn’t control my anger for a time. My mom would always say to me, “You’ve got a chip on your shoulder, son.”
As you might suspect, you can also change the pronoun you in this phrase depending on who you’re talking about. For instance:
- My roommate, Jim, has had a big chip on his shoulder ever since I asked him to keep the place cleaner.
- Melissa’s difficult upbringing has caused her to have a chip on her shoulder; she believes everyone is out to harm her and is always combative.
- Our waiter was rude and seemed to have a chip on their shoulder; it was like they resented having to do their job.
- After I didn’t get the promotion and raise I worked so long for, it was hard for me not to come to work with a chip on my shoulder.
The Origin of the Phrase
First, it’s helpful to know that the meaning of the word chip in this expression is “a small, usually thin and flat, piece of wood” that has been cut, or chipped, off from a larger piece—not a potato chip or french fry.
It’s possible the idiom chip on your shoulder originated in the 18th century in the British Royal Dockyards. Reportedly back then, shipwrights (aka carpenters with skill in ship construction and repair) were allowed to bring home leftover chips of wood from the job to be used for firewood or their own construction projects. It’s said they would carry the chips on their shoulder for inspection before taking them off the site. (It’s not the only idiom thought to begin at sea! The expressions by and large and under the weather both appear to have nautical origins.)
Most language historians, though, believe the phrase dates to the early 19th century and the custom of using chips in fighting, which might explain how the expression came to have the meaning we associate with it today.
In May of 1830, the New York newspaper the Long Island Telegraph described the practice of using chips to start a brawl, reporting:
“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.”
Later that year, an issue of the Onondaga Standard, out of Syracuse, New York, included the copy:
“‘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.’”
In 1855, another newspaper, the Weekly Oregonian, printed the phrase again relating to fighting:
“Leland, in his last issue, struts out with a chip on his shoulder, and dares Bush to knock it off.”
In Schoolhouse Hill by Mark Twain, the character Tom Sawyer even acknowledges that putting a chip on your shoulder and daring someone to knock it off is a surefire way to start a fight. Wikipedia shares more about the old custom.
As is the case with most idioms, over time this expression came to have a different meaning and to be used figuratively.
As mentioned at the start of this post, an idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that can’t fully be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. These words and phrases have a figurative rather than literal meaning. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:
You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.
If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.
When it comes to chip on your shoulder, if you tried to understand the phrase just by looking at the individual words it contains, and only knew the definition of the word chip to be potato chip or french fry, you’d take it to mean that you had a crumb of potato chip or fry on your shoulder. Even if you knew chip to mean a small piece of wood, if you were to take the expression at face value, you’d think we used it today as it was used back in the 18th or 19th century, to mean you had a small wood chip on your shoulder. Now that you know the figurative meaning, you know that it doesn’t mean you actually have anything on your shoulder at all, rather that you are metaphorically carrying the burdens of your past in a way that causes you to have a belligerent attitude.
If you have a chip on your shoulder, you are angry all the time because of your past; you believe you were treated wrongly or got an unfair or unjust shake. You carry the perceived grievance or grudge metaphorically on your shoulder and are thus quick to take offense and react with hostility.