Q: How did having “a chip on one’s shoulder” come to mean spoiling for a fight?
A: When the expression originated in 19th-century America, it referred literally to a wood chip “carried as a challenge to others,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Today it’s a colloquial term for “a belligerent attitude,” says the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.
Etymologists have traced the usage back to the early 1800s, when an American boy looking for a fight would place a chip of wood on his shoulder and dare another boy to knock it off—reminiscent of the medieval knight who’d throw down his gauntlet, challenging another to pick it up.
The earliest written reference that we’ve seen for the American practice is in Letters from the South, an 1817 collection of letters written the year before by the American writer James Kirke Paulding:
“A man rode furiously by on horseback, and swore he’d be d—d if he could not lick any man who dared to crook his elbow at him. This, it seems, is equivalent to throwing the glove in days of yore, or to the boyish custom of knocking a chip off the shoulder.”
An OED citation from the May 20, 1830, issue of the Long Island Telegraph (Hempstead, NY), describes the practice in more detail:
“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.”
By the mid-1800s, “a chip on one’s shoulder” was being used figuratively, as in this Oxford example from the March 17, 1855, Weekly Oregonian (Portland), which refers to a challenge made in a newspaper editorial:
“Leland, in his last issue, struts out with a chip on his shoulder, and dares Bush to knock it off.” (Alonzo Leland was editor of the Democratic Standard, and Asahel Bush was editor and owner of the Oregon Statesman.)
And here’s a figurative canine example in the dictionary: “The way that dog went about with a chip on his shoulder … was enough to spoil the sweetest temper” (from the October 1887 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine).
Some websites mistakenly trace the expression to a labor protest at the Chatham Dockyard in Kent, England, in the mid-18th century.
Although a shipwright carried wood home on his shoulder to protest regulations prohibiting the practice, the expression “a chip on one’s shoulder” didn’t show up in writing until a century later—on the other side of the Atlantic. There’s no evidence that would connect the protest with the American usage.