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The idiom is defined on Dictionary.com as:

  1. bust one's chops, Slang. to exert oneself.
  2. bust someone's chops, Slang. to annoy with nagging or criticism.

Looking it up on Google, I couldn't find much info on its origin. The only source I found that seems credible is this site, which mentions that the idiom's origin could possibly be the fashion for men to wear long side burns called the mutton chop in the 19th century and that these people often get punched in the face, thus their "chops busted"? I could see a connection between this and definition #2 of the idiom, but what about definition #1 of the idiom? I don't see how this could have anything to do with the sense to exert oneself?

  • Good question! I've never really thought consciously about it, but I've always kind of semi-instinctively assumed that the ‘chops’ in question were buttocks (compared somehow or other to lamb/pork/etc. chops). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 11 '13 at 0:51
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    For what it's worth, I've always thought of it as metaphor for taking body-blows from a boxer - the 'chops' being your ribs or gut. Someone who verbally berates you (say your wife, for you gazing at a younger girl), might "bust your chops" over it. That's how it's always been used in my life experience – a few generations after 'mutton chops' are seen day to day. Info here - phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/12/messages/156.html – but that's not how I've seen it used in generations. A colorful alternative is: "breaking your balls" over something. – ipso Dec 11 '13 at 1:11
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    Interesting, I've always assumed that chops was, at least originally, used with the skills meaning. And that to bust one's chops meant to belittle their skills or abilities. That seems to fit with this usage from 1907 books.google.com/… – Jim Dec 11 '13 at 1:24
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"Chop" just literally means jaws, or sides of one's face. It's the second noun definition for "chop" in the OED. Its usage extends back to the early 16th century. Its etymology is from "chap," which is a jawbone, and an ever older word. So, the phrase is literal: "Don't bust my chops," means "don't hit me in the jaw." However, its usage is typically metaphorical, as: "don't give me such a hard time."

The first meaning "to exert oneself" is (elaborating just slightly on what the OED includes) just derived from aiming this action at oneself. The origin of the beating-up usage is USA in the early 50s, and the exertion usage is USA in the 60s. That is, "Why would I bust my chops to get a job?" = "Why would I beat myself up to get a job?" = "Why would I exert myself hard to get a job?"

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    The OP is mainly asking about the origin of the meaning "to exert oneself." – LarsH Dec 11 '13 at 2:00
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    Ah, right. Edited. – ChristopherE Dec 11 '13 at 2:35
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According to J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994), the term "bust [one's] chops" goes back to the 1950s in the sense of "annoyance" and to the 1960s in the sense of "exertion":

break [or bust] (someone's) chops, 1. to harass by the forcible exertion of one's authority; (also) to make a nuisance of oneself; to anger, annoy, or frustrate.

[Earliest citations:] 1953 Paley Rumble 254: Rocky is breakin' our chops. 1970 Zindel Your Mind 17: And the two ladies in room 409...busted my chops about regulating the oxygen. Ibid. She'd say "How was school?" and I'd say it busted my chops.

2. to work to exhaustion; bust (one's) ass

[First citation:] 1966 [Jay] Neugeboren Big Man 63 {ref. to 1950's}: If Thorpe can get ten for busting his chops way back in 1930, I can get more than five from Louie.

Lighter notes a couple of related expressions from Black English: "beat (up) (one's) chops," meaning "to talk or complain, esp. to no purpose," from 1946; and "run(one's chops out," meaning "to talk or complain," from 1964.

Here is the Neugeboren quotation in greater context, with the narrator of the novel comparing his situation to that of Jim Thorpe in 1930 "playing for half-assed football teams at ten bucks a game":

Guess things were different then. Yeah. Ten bucks for bumping heads on a football field when he was past forty. But I think: if Thorpe can get ten for busting his chops way back in 1930 I can gt more than five from Louie. The depression's over man.

A slightly earlier instance of this sense of the phrase appears in The Saint Mystery Magazine, volume 21 (1964) [combined snippets]:

"You want me to take care of that blonde, don't you?"

"Yass! That's business." Banner's jowls were grim. "Dangerous business." He gnawed on the stogie. "I've been busting my chops trying to spring these last twenty-one good American boys from this stinking can, when along comes that blonde floozie and knocks — "

J.S. Farmer & W.E. Henley, Slang & Its Analogues (1891) notes that chops was slang for "mouth," as in the phrases "lick the chops {CHOPS = the mouth, lips, jaws}" going back to 1655 and "down in the chops or mouth ... {Sad, melancholy}" going back to 1830. So chops as "mouth" has been around for centuries. Lighter points out that bust as a verb can mean "to hit hard; slug" going back to 1873. It seems not at all unreasonable to connect the two ideas into an expression for (metaphorically) slugging someone in the mouth. The odd thing about the exhaustion dorm of "bust one's chops" is that the person is said o be busting his or her own chops. Still the idea of working to exhaustion by "busting one's chops" is no stranger as an image than doing so by "busting one's ass."

Interestingly, Lighter finds an almost identical pair of meanings corresponding to the two senses of "bust (one's) chops" for "bust one's hump" ["to exert (oneself) to exhaustion"], from the 1930s, and "break (or bust) (someone's) hump" ["to harass, vex, or overcome (someone)"], from the 1950s. These phrases appear in Lighter under the definition of hump as "one's self; ASS."

A final point of interest is the observation in Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang (1960) that chops as a singular noun could mean the thighs or hips in "Negro use":

chops n. sing. 1 The mouth; the lips 2 The legs, esp. the thighs; the hips. Negro use.

Wentworth & Flexner does not mention the phrase "bust (one's) chops" at all, however.

The ultimate origin of "bust one's chops" is unclear, but the fact that it was not in widespread use as late a 1960, but became common thereafter, makes any attempt to associate it with the muttonchop whiskers of the nineteenth century seem rather farfetched. It seems much likelier that the phrase grew out of busting as "punching" or "breaking" and chops as "mouth" or (maybe) "legs."

  • Etymonline says the related and onomatopoeic chomp is an AmEng variant of champ. But strangely, the definitions it gives for the noun "chop" are 1) act of chopping, and 2) "piece cut off" 3) Sense of "a blow, strike". No mention of jawbone or mouth. I wonder why... – Mari-Lou A Jun 7 '15 at 6:34
  • @Mari-Lou A: Slang & Its Analogues says that chops in the sense of "mouth, lips, jaws" comes from "Fr[ench], les jaffes" and cites this instance from 1655: "FELLOWES, tr., Milton's 2nd Defence, 227. The sight of this egg ... caused our monarchy-men ... to LICK THEIR CHOPS." You can read the full quote here. As I said, chops in that sense has been in English a long time. – Sven Yargs Jun 7 '15 at 6:49
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    I know that chops is slang, I wasn't questioning its legitimacy, I've used the expression myself, I was just surprised that etymonline didn't record this meaning. It's usually very good at listing slang and colloquial usages. Ah, (checks again) the plural term chops. "jaws, sides of the face," c. 1500," – Mari-Lou A Jun 7 '15 at 7:01
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I like the answer of skills and abilities being called into question (or a close second the one about the chops as a butcher reference).

I remember reading about, for example, a certain musician's exceptional "chops", so I figure if you bust someone's chops you are breaking them down a bit, usually in a lighthearted way (perhaps to keep each other grounded).

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With regard to the connection between the idiom definition #2 and the Mutton Chop explanation is that when experience being annoyed with nagging or criticism one might feel like it's a slap in the face or having your "Chops" busted.

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'Chops' is your skill in the music business.

He has a great set of chops

comes from wind players prowess. This translates to any player's prowess as 'chops'. This translates to any skilled person's prowess in any field as chops. So

Don't bust my chops

means

Don't take me for an ignoramus.

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