The context is below.

Bansal is the famous coaching center to clear Engineering Entrance test. Bansal students had a chip on their shoulder, even though they weren't technically even in a college

The meaning for the phrase chip on their shoulder is a form of physical challenge, inviting opponents to knock the chip off and so provoke a fight. I can understand its meaning refers to they are so much alert to face any question or puzzle related to engineering entrance test. But why author added the clause even though they weren't technically even in a college? It confuses me. Does it mean only students those goes to college should pocess that kind of attribute or mindset?

  • 5
    To have a chip on one's shoulder is not a form of physical challenge. It's to bear a grudge or be generally unhappy about something. Corroboration. And there isn't enough context to explain why they have a chip on their shoulder.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 12:50
  • @Andrew Leach: in this case, I assume it means that they feel they should be considered to be college students (or the social and intellectual equals of college students), even though they technically aren't in college; and they will be upset with anybody who doesn't do so. Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 12:55
  • The literal meaning of a chip on a shoulder 2.bp.blogspot.com/_0sbGd8DfKH4/SNIAKY9wGsI/AAAAAAAAAUU/…
    – Tristan
    Commented Oct 13, 2013 at 16:01

5 Answers 5


First, this is a metaphor. Like all metaphors it has a number of possible interpretations. It's not literal, and people do not in fact put a physical chip on their physical shoulder. I'm 70 years old, and I've never seen any actual human being who literally had a chip on their shoulder.

Second, this metaphor refers to any person who seems to take offense easily -- to be seeking out offenses to challenge, in fact. The image has to do with a challenge to "knock this chip off my shoulder," as the first blow in a personal fight. Anybody who said such a thing would have been determined to fight in the first place, and was merely looking for a provoking event. Similar remarks apply to similar metaphors like drawing a line on the ground/in the sand.

Third, it is often assumed (because it is so common and so human) that such irascibility is rooted in a personal sense of inferiority of some sort. It can be a matter of backing the wrong team, or being in the wrong social class, or something more personal. In fact, it is hard to separate personal from social inferiority, and many people don't try. But that's not the only possible meaning, merely a frequent accompaniment to such aggressive display.


I'll go into the semantics here since I have a wee bit of a knowledge of what is being talked about here. If you're from India, you have the perception, thanks to media, that the students who take classes for engineering entrance to make it to IITs are perceived as the so-called 'inferiors'. It is this that is being referred to here. These students are yet to make it to some college and yet they already know that they might be perceived as the not-so-good ones among their peers. I hope I'm clear with my thoughts here.

  • 1
    Thank you for the additional context. That's a specialized local narrowing of the general metaphorical meaning, but that's the sort of thing that happens to metaphors. Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 17:15
  • Yes, of course, it does! Commented Dec 8, 2012 at 7:53

Having a chip on one's shoulder refers to when someone is part of a group or institution that is perceived as being inferior, but its members believe that reputation is unfair.

In your case, the attendees of that school feel that attending a prepatory school makes others view them poorly, but the members do not believe they should be viewed poorly.

  • 1
    That's one possibility; there are others. Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 17:04

Having a 'chip on your shoulder' generally refers to someone begrudging an opposing person/party. It can be for many reasons - jealously, resentment, bitterness conceived from what the person feels has been a wrongdoing against them by this person/party, an inferiority complex, or indeed general ignorance that has been inherited from peers/parents.

I would need to see what's written before the paragraph you've posted as to why they have a 'chip on their shoulder', as nothing in that paragraph gives it away as to what has caused this issue except for the possibility that the reputation of the centre isn't great and they therefore suffer from an inferiority complex.


Surely thi phrase started from the Wink Wink brand of chips, which were popular with college teachers. Over time the phrase came to mean any learned individuals who have rather sloppy snack eating habits.


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