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Chip on Your Shoulder (Meaning, Origin, Examples)

What does it mean to have a “chip on your shoulder?” Is this a positive or a negative idiom used in American English? This common idiom can appear in daily activities. It’s crucial to understand the intention and meaning behind it.

Learn what “chip on your shoulder” means in this idiom guide…

What does “chip on your shoulder” mean?

Chip on your shoulder” is an idiom. It refers to a bad or negative attitude which is prone to making people upset quite easily, often stemming from an underlying grudge against the other person.

The bad or negative attitude often makes reference to the seemingly unfair treatment. For instance, someone may claim someone is having a chip on their shoulder a competitor won a big race. This is in full knowledge of the fact of someone referred to earlier winning higher races than a competitor.

It also could mean that someone is habitually negative, hostile or has a combative approach, primarily due to deeply held grievance or resentment. Whichever way you view the phrase, it has a negative connotation.

Where Did The Idiom “Chip On Your Shoulder” Come From?

There are a couple of suggestions on the origin of the idiom chip on your shoulder.

Back in 18th century England, the phrase was represented quite literally. The board of the Royal Navy released an ordinance that allowed shipwrights working the docks to carry home with them, the leftover wood for personal use. The ordinance mandated that the shipwrights carry the” wooden chips on their shoulder” allowing the officers to inspect them as they took them home.

The other popular theory mentions that individuals who wished to get involved in a physical fight would have to put a wooden chip on their shoulders. Then they would challenge others to knock the chip down.

Example of use
Example of use

In the publication, Long Island Telegraph, dated 20th May 1830 edition, you can see the translation of the idiom. It reported that two churlish young had to fight each other. The fight, planned with a wooden chip kept on the shoulders of the boy, saw the other boy knocking it aside.

However, the English idiom’s figurative explanation first appeared in a book by William Somerset Maugham, an enlightening non-fictional record of the author’s travels from Rangoon to Haiphong.

Examples of “Chip On Your Shoulder” in a Sentence

You can use the idiom ‘chip on your shoulder’ to let someone know their behavior is unacceptable, or they are displaying unacceptable behavior. This is a subtle way to send a message of disapproval for the said behavior.

For example: Joe, you have to let go of that chip on your shoulder.

You could also use the idiom to point out the bad attitude of another person. A good example of expressing the same could be: “I am unsure what is wrong with them, but they have had chips on their shoulders lately.”

The idiom implies that the person wants to engage in a fight but will not be the first to start. Instead, they will passively dare the other person to start the fight. If someone is always rude to you for no valid reason, you may believe that the person has a chip on his shoulder.

In other words, the idiom is used to describe a highly negative person and is mainly used in a pejorative term.

Is Having a Chip on Your Shoulder a Good Thing?

If someone passes a comment saying that you have a chip on your shoulder, then you need to be worried. The person is trying to tell you that you carry resentment, live with a grudge, and are prejudiced individuals. It is perceived mostly as a negative comment and mostly people use it to describe bad or negative aspects of someone behind their backs.

The truth is that having a chip on your shoulder will probably not do you any good. It is an indication of you being an aggressive, over-reactive, and touchy individual. In all likelihood, you will end up isolating and alienating yourself from other people, ultimately causing more self-harm than good.

Having a chip on your shoulder indicates that other people expect you to react negatively or in anger. It also implies that you as an individual react without adequate justification or forethought.

If someone close to you uses the idiom to describe you, you must take the feedback seriously to eliminate that chip on your shoulder.

In a nutshell, having a chip on your shoulder is considered to be a negative aspect. Using the idiom, someone is trying to point out your weakness and asking you to improve.

What is an Example of a Chip on Your Shoulder?

The idiom is typically used by someone angry and feels that he or she has been mistreated. Here are a few relevant examples of the idiom used in daily life:

  • If you raise any controversial issues, you will immediately be labeled as someone who makes trouble. People will say that you have a chip on your shoulder.
  • Everyone has some insecurities or other. You can’t keep walking around with a chip on your shoulder.

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About the author

Dalia Y.: Dalia is an English Major and linguistics expert with an additional degree in Psychology. Dalia has featured articles on Forbes, Inc, Fast Company, Grammarly, and many more. She covers English, ESL, and all things grammar on GrammarBrain.

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