Expression – To Have a Chip on One’s Shoulder

by Melanie on February 23, 2010

Recently, I watched a program on TV called ‘Lockdown,’ about young men in an American prison. A young inmate was asked, “Has anyone ever told you that you have a chip on your shoulder?”

Someone who has a chip on their shoulder is angry all the time. They feel that they have been wronged by the world, so they are always ready for a fight. They are easily offended because they feel that they have been treated unfairly by others, or perhaps they feel inferior. They expect trouble, so they are always ready for it.

It can also mean that the person has a grievance about something. Something bad has happened to him, and he might believe it was someone else’s fault. This kind of person is constantly angry about it that it affects his behaviour. In the person’s mind, he is showing how tough he is.

*Because this expression is used to describe someone and because it uses the verb have, you can also use have got. You can also add adjectives to describe the size of the chip:

I can’t stand working with Bill; he’s got such a massive chip on his shoulder. He’s so unpleasant.

…Keira Knightley has admitted that forsaking university in favour of a film career has left her with a “chip on her shoulder” over her lack of education. . . . [She] now battles to prove to herself – and those around her – that she has brains.
- from The Telegraph (U.K.)

Success never made that chip on his shoulder go away.
- about Roger Ailes, Fox News Chief, from The New York Times

James “Sawyer” Ford [a character on the TV show LOST] started as the classic rogue with a shady past who parades around with a constant chip on his shoulder.
- from IGN.com

 

Origin of the expression:

This expression originated in the U.S. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use was in 1830 in the Long Island Telegraph newspaper: 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. In this case a chip is a small piece of wood. A young boy who was angry about something and determined to fight would place a small chip of wood on his shoulder and challenge another person to knock it off his shoulder. When the chip was knocked off, it meant the opponent was ready and the fight would begin. It was his way of showing everyone how tough he was. Later, in 1855, the actual expression a chip on one’s shoulder appeared in print in the Weekly Oregonian newspaper: Leland, in his last issue, struts out with a chip on his shoulder, and dares Bush to knock it off. Nowadays, the chip is figurative: there’s no physical chip of wood on someone’s shoulder, he/she just acts like there is!

Do you know someone who has a chip on their shoulder?

 


{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 kim seulgi November 21, 2012 at 9:55 pm

I am very impressed of your English teaching way.
I wanted to find out like this blog..!

thanks~

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2 SUDIPTA November 28, 2012 at 1:28 am

superb!in bangla there is a term “osadharan”for incredible.u r just like that!!!!

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3 alexandra February 3, 2013 at 4:55 pm

thank you so much u guys helped me with my english homework

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4 Alex June 23, 2013 at 7:08 pm

Great explanation, thank you. I think that most people have had had, at one point or another in their lives, a chip on their shoulder. Don’t you agree?

Reply

5 Munir Waspada August 17, 2013 at 7:53 pm

Dear Melanie,

On the second paragraph of your explanation above, you start writing with “Someone who has a chip on their shoulder is angry all the time.”

My question is whether your word “their” refers to that “someone” or a group of people. It seems to me that the one who is angry all the time is that “someone”. However, your next sentence says “They feel that they have been wronged by the world, so they are always ready for a fight.” So here it seems that the one who is angry is that “a group of people”. This is confusing me. Can you please give me a more clear explanation. Thank you.

Reply

Melanie 6 Melanie August 26, 2013 at 3:36 pm

Hi, Munir!

This is a great question!

It has become more common in English to use ‘they’ & ‘their’ to mean BOTH one person or a group of people.

The grammatically correct sentence would be, “Someone who has a chip on HIS shoulder is angry all the time.” OR “Someone who has a chip on HER shoulder is angry all the time.”

It was more common to write HIS instead of HER. However, women did not want to be left out, and wanted the language to be more equal. Gradually, people began saying ‘they’ or ‘their’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she.’

I hope that makes things clearer!
= )

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7 vumile March 11, 2014 at 8:16 pm

This a fantastic blog! thank you!

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8 Shahriar May 4, 2014 at 10:02 am

I would like to express my profound admiration for what you have done here.

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