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What is the most common non-literal use of the expression "chugging away"? I've heard it in the context of:

The machine is switched on and *chugging away*.
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Your example is a literal usage - the machine is switched on and making a rhythmic 'chugging' sound. The most common non-literal use of chugging is when chugging along is used to mean making steady progress - which can occur in contexts where there's no associated rhythmic "machine-like" sound involved. –  FumbleFingers Apr 17 '12 at 13:58
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Chug is onomatopoeia for the noise a train makes as it goes along. If a train is chugging away is it making the sound that means it is working.

So chugging away is a metaphorical way of saying working, i.e doing what it's meant to be doing.

For example, you might say:

Ahh, look at granddad chugging away in the garden. He looks so happy.

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I can't go with that example. Chug is so strongly associated with the sound that it's bordering on "marked" to use chugging away in any context where there's no obvious repetitive noise. You'd get far more examples for metaphoric chugging along, where the sense is of making steady progress even if there's no implication of any accompanying rhythmic engine sound. –  FumbleFingers Apr 17 '12 at 13:54
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@FumbleFingers: I think you are making too much of a distinction between along and away: one which does not really exist in nature. Indeed Matt is using it metaphorically, and there is no requirement for the implication of sound to be represented by the metaphor. –  horatio Apr 17 '12 at 16:13
    
@FumbleFingers: I agree that chug is most often associated with the sound of a train, but I don't believe an accompanying along is needed to use it idiomatically, i.e. to allude to working on a laborious path toward a particular aim, much like chug and chugger are used in this article. –  J.R. Apr 17 '12 at 17:04
    
@horatio: Google Books: "I chugged along" - 595 hits; "I chugged away" - 28 hits. Admittedly a small sample, but even among those 28 (actually only 13 when GB is asked to show the details) it seems to me most of them are "semi-literal, sound-associated" - "chugging away in a clapped out old banger", for example. –  FumbleFingers Apr 17 '12 at 17:42
    
I follow what you are saying, but I think your search is confounded by your choice of terms. Googling chugging away even brings up a news item with "chugging away" in the title and a quote about "chugging along" (the editors see them as interchangeable). Note also that "chug" means to drink quickly without pause and this meaning is widespread, complicating the metaphor. And finally, metaphors are highly plastic. –  horatio Apr 17 '12 at 17:59
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