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I focus on the 2nd theory, out of 2, for the etymology of 'chip of your shoulder'. How does limiting "the amount of timber that could be taken", thus the "revoking of their previous benefit", semantically shift to signify "perceived grievance or sense of inferiority"? They appear unrelated to me, probably for I don't understand the history of 18th century working practices at the British Royal Dockyards.

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Chip on your shoulder'?

A 'chip on your shoulder' is a perceived grievance or sense of inferiority.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Chip on your shoulder'?

[...]

Anyone who might be inclined to doubt that origin might be interested in an alternative theory. This relates to working practices in the British Royal Dockyards in the 18th century. In Day and Lunn's The History of Work and Labour Relations in the Royal Dockyards, 1999, the authors report that the standing orders of the [Royal] Navy Board for August 1739 included this ruling:

"Shipwrights to be allowed to bring [chips] on their shoulders near to the dock gates, there to be inspected by officers".

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The permission to remove surplus timber for firewood or building material was a substantial perk of the job for the dock workers. A subsequent standing order, in May 1753, ruled that only chips that could be carried under one arm were allowed to be removed. This limited the amount of timber that could be taken and the shipwrights were not best pleased about the revoking of their previous benefit. Three years later, for this and other reasons, they went on strike.

Hattendorf, Knight et al., in British Naval Documents, 1204 - 1960, record a letter which was sent by Chatham Dockyard officers to the Navy Board, relating to the 1756 dockyard workers' strike at Chatham. The letter records a comment made by a shipwright who was stopped at the yard's gates:

"Are not the chips mine? I will not lower them."

It goes on to report that "Immediately the main body pushed on with their chips on their shoulders."

That's a nice story and does connect an incident concerning chips and shoulders with a belligerent attitude. We need to be a little wary of swallowing that derivation whole however. The problem with it is that the phrase isn't known to be recorded in print in England with its figurative meaning anywhere near the 18th century. The first such record by an English author doesn't seem to be until the 1930s in fact, in Somerset Maugham's Gentleman in the Parlour:

"He was a man with a chip on his shoulder. Everyone seemed in a conspiracy to slight or injure him."

A gap of nearly 200 years between the use of a phrase and the incident that supposedly spawned it in the same country is hard to explain. In my humble opinion, the 'chips on shoulders' report dating from 1756 refer literally to just that, chips carried on shoulders. There's no evidence at all to suggest 'a chip on one's shoulder' existed as a figurative phrase until the 19th century.

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  • @NigelJ Please read both questions carefully? They ask about different theories for the same idiom.
    – user50720
    Jul 23, 2020 at 18:02
  • After the new ruling, those shipwrights attempting to leave the dockyards after a shift with chips on their shoulders got it in the neck. They felt they were being picked on. Jul 23, 2020 at 18:05
  • Sometimes such elaborate explanations seem unrealistic. I always thought it was simply because a chip (of wood) on the shoulder is a heavy load to carry. Similar to "ball and chain" but semantically different. Jul 23, 2020 at 18:33
  • Please refer to part 1 of this extensive question. I was at a loss at first to understand OP's first comment. Jul 23, 2020 at 18:40
  • “A chip off the old block” uses a different sized chip.
    – Xanne
    Jul 23, 2020 at 19:38

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How does limiting "the amount of timber that could be taken", thus the "revoking of their previous benefit", semantically shift to signify "perceived grievance or sense of inferiority"?

The meaning is less of their sense of inferiority and partly their willingness, desire to do something about it. Being aggressive or ready to start a fight this way calls back to the worker who is just waiting for the supervisor to tell them that their scrap of wood is just a bit too much.

The means by which the workers were checked for the their allotment of small timber is certainly where the phrase comes from; originally larger pieces under their arm but then on the shoulder. It was up to the supervisor to determine whether or not such wood chips would exceed the proper size and up to him to enforce his decision. Workers of that era generally came to dislike any supervisor just for having a position over them and would be particularly offended by them touching their person.

It seems inevitable that the authority of the supervisor to take wood from the worker and the worker having a right to wood of some size would be a point of great contention. With this in mind a worker could then challenge the supervisor just by carrying a chip on his shoulder larger than he knew would be allowed. Arguing over this small infraction of the rules would serve the purpose of starting a fight over far more substantial grievances. Labor relations has many stories of struggles beginning with such minor subjects

The shift to signify "perceived grievance or sense of inferiority"

One who has a chip on their shoulder is ready and prepared to respond in a negative or hostile way to any personal interaction. Such a reaction depends on their preexisting condition based on their grievance or personal sense of inferiority. Such an attitude leads to one "spoiling" for a fight. While not walking around daring people to fight the attitude of being put upon leaves one with the cranky or negative appearance as though they would rather fight than be agreeable.

The meaning is less of their sense of inferiority and partly their willingness, desire to do something about it. Being aggressive or ready to start a fight (spoiling for a fight) this way calls back to the worker who is just waiting for the supervisor to tell them that their scrap of wood is just a bit too much.

From grammarist.com: A chip on your shoulder is a metaphor which means that you are habitually negative, combative or have a hostile attitude, usually because of a deep resentment or long-held grievance.

When the phrase is used it is not just by way of biography for the individual. It is a warning to others that this guy is spoiling for a fight, and ready to fight for reasons that are not at all obvious to others.

For someone to knock something off your shoulder has come to be taken as the lowest level of assault. The following examples, since the 18th century and before Maugham make this clear.

From knowyourphrase: This sort of behavior was described in some newspapers from the 19th century. For example, the Long Island Telegraph newspaper, printed on May 20th, 1830, wrote:

When two churlish boys were determined to fight, a chip would be placed on the shoulder of one, and the other demanded to knock it off at his peril.

Another example from the same year is written in the Onondaga Standard of Syracuse, New York, 1830:

‘He waylay me’, said I, ‘the mean sneaking fellow – I am only afraid that he will sue me for damages. Oh! if I only could get him to knock a chip off my shoulder, and so get round the law, I would give him one of the soundest thrashings he ever had.'

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  • 'The meaning is less of their sense of inferiority and more their willingness, desire to do something about it. ' This is not what I understand the definition at PhraseFinder, a recognised authority on ELU, to say. Have you supporting evidence from a recognised authority? (There is actually some later in the PhraseFinder article.) Sep 10, 2020 at 14:42
  • Ah, now we're getting to 50-50 maybe (I don't go with 'combative or have a hostile attitude'). But why isn't this in the answer? Sep 11, 2020 at 10:09

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