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Why do people say he has a chip on his shoulder?


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I've heard people say this when they refer to someone arrogant. I've tried asking native English speakers about why they say that and all I get is "It's just an expression". I understand that, but why that particular phrase? I mean for expressions such as "have your cake and eat it too" you can understand what it means and how it makes sense but for "chip on his shoulder" I just don't get it. Can anyone here explain this one? Thanks!

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A chip on his/her shoulder

From my understanding, this expression means that a person who has been treated unfairly in the past, thus becomes less trustful and kind towards others. I'm not sure why this expression is used specifically for someone who's arrogant though.  :confused:

Yep, hopefully any native English speaker here could help explain this  :grin:

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I don't think this phrase is appropriate to use to describe someone who is arrogant. As far as I know, it's meant to refer to someone who feels as though he or she is always getting treated unfairly and thus is bitter about most things in life. As for the origins, I've looked it up but don't really understand it that much either. Here is the article and hopefully someone can explain it to us in simpler terms.

http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/chip-on-your-shoulder.html

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Actually, the phrase is often used about people who are arrogant, conceited, abrasive or unlikable due to their egotism. It might be about someone who is bitter, but if so it's because they aren't getting their way. At least that's how I usually hear it.

As for that article explaining where it comes from, that doesn't really line up with the current usage at all. While idioms, phrases, can have literal meanings that explain the figurative meaning, sometimes the phrase develops so far from the original meaning over time that the link is lost. So the article explains it was likely that people would put chips of wood on their shoulders and dare someone else to knock it off in order to initiate a fight. If you really stretch you could see how it eventually maybe came to mean someone who starts fights all the time, and usually people who start a lot of fights are arrogant, and the meaning just changed.

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To my understanding, to have a chip on ones shoulder usually refers to a person who is always angry at others and is very quick to put up a fight. This person becomes that way mainly because he/she feels that in the past or at all times he/she has been treated unfairly by others. Thus, the chip on the shoulder can be looked at as the burden of the past that the person continues to bear.

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Actually, the phrase is often used about people who are arrogant, conceited, abrasive or unlikable due to their egotism. It might be about someone who is bitter, but if so it's because they aren't getting their way. At least that's how I usually hear it.

As for that article explaining where it comes from, that doesn't really line up with the current usage at all. While idioms, phrases, can have literal meanings that explain the figurative meaning, sometimes the phrase develops so far from the original meaning over time that the link is lost. So the article explains it was likely that people would put chips of wood on their shoulders and dare someone else to knock it off in order to initiate a fight. If you really stretch you could see how it eventually maybe came to mean someone who starts fights all the time, and usually people who start a lot of fights are arrogant, and the meaning just changed.

Oh this was really useful, thank you! I'm glad you explained how the origin turned into it's current definition. That was exactly what I wanted to know. I just understood that how it was used, but didn't really know the "why" behind that odd expression. Thanks!  :grin:

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  • 4 weeks later...

The expression means that a person is holding a grudge or grievance because he thinks he was treated unfairly in some way. Because of this, the person is prone to argue or fight.

You have to be careful with websites that "explain" the origins of idioms like this. For many idioms, you can probably find at least three or four different explanations as to its origin. Such a false explanation is called a spook etymology. The fact is, the origins of many idioms are unknown, and no amount of research will get to the bottom of it. Idioms start out as casual phrases in simple conversational speech. It is often a long time before they are "adopted" into a national vocabulary and actually committed to writing. The best that etymologists can do is try to track down the first written occurrence of an idiom, but the idiom was probably in use years, maybe even decades, before it was written in a book, newspaper, etc. And by that time, no one knows where it started. As a result, many of these spook etymologies have been proffered as explanations as to the origins of idioms.

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  • 2 months later...

I am not a native speaker but I have heard this idiom so many times that I understand its meaning. A chip on the shoulder means that someone has an issue weighing them down. When someone is carrying something heavy, their shoulders are bowed from the weight. Here is an example, a man can have a chip on his shoulder when relating with women if he has been betrayed by one before.

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Good question! I'm a native speaker and I've never questioned why that expression is said. It really makes no sense when you think about.

Why "chip"? I think a car or horse would be a better object than a chip since they are heavier. And in those cases (car or horse), I'd get it since having to carry something heavy will eventually weigh you down until you get so tired you start fighting back.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Actually, the phrase is often used about people who are arrogant, conceited, abrasive or unlikable due to their egotism. It might be about someone who is bitter, but if so it's because they aren't getting their way. At least that's how I usually hear it.

I agree with your explanation, and I think your "if so" goes together just fine with your first assessment. I think people "have a chip on their shoulder" when they're arrogant, abrasive, etc, because they *THINK* they aren't getting what they deserve. So I'd say those two ideas go together pretty well.

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I am not really familiar with this idiom but I would like to share my idea of it. :)

if the meaning is "A perceived grievance or sense of inferiority." maybe a chip on my shoulder describes a piece of log or wood on a shoulder which can literally make the shoulder quite heavy which can symbolize inferiority or feeling of being pulled down. Just my opinion though. :P

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  • 4 weeks later...

I am from the USA, but I never took this expression to mean arrogant.

Instead it means someone who feels they have been disrespected in the past, and thus they feel they have something to prove.  They are motivated by something from their past.

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The origin of the meaning, coming from a family  of shipbuilders and wood-choppers, is a chip of wood chopped from a block of wood , a piece big enough to be carried on your shoulder, the right kind of wood can be very heavy.

In the earlier days, a chip, or chips that were chopped off timber and blocks of wood that were not useful in building, could be carried off home for firewood or other use.  So you carried a heavy load on your shoulder , as if you had a grudge against someone, an unsettled argument or dispute. So staring a new argument or coming in to a discussion without an open mind, but already with a grievance.

In the USA it became a saying that if someone knocked your chip of your shoulder you had a reason to get into a fight. And it was recorded in writing from early 1800's.

And today it still means that you have an unsettled argument or feeling wronged , so you are not coming with an open mind, but with a predisposition of need for being righted of the earlier wrongs don to you.

This saying is used differently in UK, USA and Europe , it  holds the grievance meaning still in USA.

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  • 2 months later...

The origin of the meaning, coming from a family  of shipbuilders and wood-choppers, is a chip of wood chopped from a block of wood , a piece big enough to be carried on your shoulder, the right kind of wood can be very heavy.

In the earlier days, a chip, or chips that were chopped off timber and blocks of wood that were not useful in building, could be carried off home for firewood or other use.  So you carried a heavy load on your shoulder , as if you had a grudge against someone, an unsettled argument or dispute. So staring a new argument or coming in to a discussion without an open mind, but already with a grievance.

In the USA it became a saying that if someone knocked your chip of your shoulder you had a reason to get into a fight. And it was recorded in writing from early 1800's.

And today it still means that you have an unsettled argument or feeling wronged , so you are not coming with an open mind, but with a predisposition of need for being righted of the earlier wrongs don to you.

This saying is used differently in UK, USA and Europe , it  holds the grievance meaning still in USA.

Oh this explains why there seems to be a bit of a debate here as to how to interpret this expression. I didn't know that it was used differently in different parts of the world. I just thought the expression was so weird that people often misinterpreted it. Thanks for explaining!

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  • 3 months later...

I agree especially with the posts that mention the person's past.  To me that is where the emotional weight is for a good understanding of the phrase.  It is one thing to be defensive, but when it is done out of repeated abuses in the past it takes on a different light.  I have a really good friend that had bad experiences with one certain culture when he first came to the USA.  It is very hard for him to separate  his past from how he interacts with them today even though he is now socially considered their equal.  I often literally think that he "has a chip on his shoulder"  when he makes negative generalizations about them and he has no evidence for what he accuses them of.

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