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What Does it Mean to Have a 'Chip on Your Shoulder'?

Sai Kardile Mar 1, 2020
Some people are naturally quarrelsome; all they need is a little provocation and they will have burst their gasket. They feel so because they are probably distressed over an event in the past that leads them to think little of themselves or believe that they have been treated in an unfair way; hence have a chip on their shoulder.

That's Some Chip on the Shoulder

"Not going to university did give me an incredible driving force because it leaves you with a slight chip on your shoulder. It makes me feel I am going to read absolutely everything so I can prove that I am not stupid."
― Keira Knightley, as said in an interview in The Telegraph.
There are some people who are always up for a fight. They are like a tempestuous storm, ready to blow anyone that come their way to bits. As human beings, we are all a collection of our past, and if our past hoards slighting and affronting memories, then it is most likely to reflect in our temperament.
More often than not, these very memories make people feel resentful and force them to adopt a foul attitude toward others. Such people always expect trouble and are always in the pugnacious mode.
To put it simply, if someone has a chip on their shoulder, they are feeling angry almost all the time because they feel that they have been treated in a way that was contrary to the sense of fairness or simply because they feel lowly. Now that we know the meaning of 'to have a chip on shoulder', now let's understand how or from where exactly it originated.

Origin of 'Chip on Your Shoulder'

'Chip on your shoulder' has an American provenance. In fact, the phrase found its first ever mention in the New York newspaper Long Island Telegraph, where it reported that when two boorish boys were in a mood to fight, one of them would put a chip of wood on his shoulder and challenge the other one to strike it down at his own risk.
When the other boy knocked the chip off, it clearly signaled that he too is gagging to fight and the fight would then begin.
This is similar to a custom followed by medieval knights where a knight would throw his gauntlet (metal glove) to challenge his opponent. If the opponent picked it up, it meant that he is up for the challenge.
Likewise, an alternative theory allows the shipwrights of the Royal Navy Dockyards to carry spare pieces of timber home. While this right was initiated from 1634, by 1756 after realizing the abuse of this perk, the Navy Board came up with a move to restrict the quantity of chips that could be carried by the shipwrights.
Under the new rule, a shipwright could only carry pieces of timber under his arms and not on his shoulders, because a shipwright possibly could carry a goodly portion of timber off-cuts under his one arm. This rule, however, did not go down well with the shipwright, who went on a strike to express his displeasure for the same.
While this incident hints at one's annoyance and mentions chips on shoulders, the English language did not use the phrase figuratively until the 1930s.

Examples of 'Chip On Your Shoulder'

★ Charles has a chip on his shoulder about not having a good upbringing.

Meaning: Charles feels indignation about his poor upbringing and gets annoyed with anyone who broaches it.
★ Watch out for Georgina, she has got a chip on her shoulder!

Meaning: Georgina is spoiling for a fight, keep away from her.

★ If you are going to have a chip on your shoulder, I'm afraid Irina will leave you.

Meaning: If you continue to act pugnacious and keep fighting with Irina, she will break up with you.
Now that you know the meaning of this phrase, we are sure you won't literally look for a chip on someone's shoulder! An adjective can also be used with the phrase like "she has got a bit of a chip on her shoulder" or like "he has got a huge chip on his shoulder" to imply the degree of someone's anger.