Chip on shoulder

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The phrase having a chip on one's shoulder refers to holding a grudge or grievance that readily provokes disputation.


"A chip on the shoulder" comes from the ancient right of shipwrights within the Royal Navy Dockyards to take home a daily allowance of offcuts of timber, even if good wood was cut up for this purpose. The privilege was reinstated before 1660.[1] By 1756, this privilege had been abused and was costing the taxpayer too much in lost timber for warship repair and construction. The decision was then made by the Navy Board to limit the quantity a shipwright could carry home. A warrant was issued to the Royal Dockyards to reduce the quantity of chips by ordering shipwrights to carry their bundles under their arms instead of on their shoulders, as one could not carry as much timber in this fashion. The specific incident from which the expression derives is as follows:

Master Shipwright and his Assistant, Chatham Dockyard, to Navy Board, 17 June 1756.

On Tuesday a petition was brought to the Honourable Thomas Cooper, Esq., Commissioner of this yard, by John Bissenden and Robert Woodriff, shipwrights, in behalf of the whole body of shipwrights, relating to their carrying chips out of the yard on their shoulders. The next day the Commissioner sent for them in the presence of the Master Shipwright and the First Assistant and represented to them the ill consequence of such proceedings, and read to them your Honourable Board's warrant of the 4 May 1753 on which the said two men withdrew the petition and said they would talk to all the people and believe everybody would be satisfied with what had been said to them. And in the afternoon the Master Shipwright sent for all the foremen and quartermen and read the Order to them of the 4th May 1753, and give every quarterman a particular charge to tell all his men separately what the order was relating to their lowering their chips and carrying them under their arm out of the yard.

This day at twelve of the clock some few of the workmen about one hundred and fifty came up first to the gate without any chips, afterwards about twenty more came and lowered their chips agreeable to the Board's warrant. Then came John Miller, shipwright, about thirty feet before the main body of the people, on which the Master Shipwright ordered him to lower his chips. He answered he would not, with that the Master Shipwright took hold of him, and said he should. He, the said Miller replied, 'Are not the chips mine? I will not lower them.' Immediately the main body pushed on with their chips on their shoulders, crowded and forced the Master Shipwright and the First Assistant through the gateway, and when out of the yard give three huzzas.[2]

This custom is known in North America since the early 19th century. The New York newspaper Long Island Telegraph reported on 20 May 1830 "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". A similar notion is mentioned in the issue of the Onondaga Standard of Syracuse, New York on 8 December 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'." Some time later in 1855 the phrase "chip on his shoulder" appeared in the Weekly Oregonian, stating "Leland, in his last issue, struts out with a chip on his shoulder, and dares Bush to knock it off".

In Canada, the custom is well described at St. Peter Claver's Indian Residential School for Ojibway boys in the town of Spanish,

By custom, the challenger, usually one of the intermediates, anxious to prove his worth or avenge some wrong, would deliberately seek out his foe with a wood chip or flat stone on his shoulder, placed there either by his own hand or by that of somebody else.

The challenger might further provoke his opponent by issuing a dare for him to knock off the chip. The opponent might then display his bravery and contempt by brushing the cheek of the challenger lightly as he did so. In more formal cases, a second might take the chip and present the chip to his man who would then place it on his own shoulder. The boys would then square off and fistfight like boxers.[3][4]


  1. ^ Richardson, H.E., 'Wages of Shipwrights in H.M. Dockyards, 1496-1788', Mariner's Mirror, Vol. 33 (1947), p.266.
  2. ^ National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, ADM/B/153: Admiralty In-Letters, transcribed in Hattendorf, J.B. et al, British Naval Documents (London, Naval Records Society, 1993), pp. 528-529
  3. ^ Basil H. Johnston, Indian School Days 
  4. ^ A dictionary of slang and unconventional English, Eric Partridge, Paul Beale, p.210