The Grammarphobia Blog

Our etymological chops

Q: The Playbill for Lincoln Center’s tribute to Oscar Peterson says Kenny Baron, one of the pianists performing, “honed his chops” playing with Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Freddie Hubbard, and other jazz musicians. How did “chops” come to mean skill? A test for your etymological chops.

A: The story begins back in the early 16th century when “chop” appeared in English as a term for the jaw.

The earliest known example (with “chop” spelled “choip”) is from “The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy,” which was composed by the Scottish poet William Dunbar in 1505 and printed in 1508, according to the Oxford English Dictionary:

“Thy cheikbane bair and blaiknit is thy ble. / Thy choip, thy choll garris men for to leif chest” (“Thy cheekbones stick out and pale is thy complexion. / Thy jaw, thy jowl makes men live sinlessly”). We’ve expanded the citation from the poem, which describes a flyting, or literary war of words, between Dunbar and another poet, Walter Kennedy.

By the end of the 16th century, the OED says, the plural “chops” was being used to mean the jaws or mouth “in contemptuous or humorous application to men.”

The dictionary cites an anonymous 1589 pamphlet attacking the Anglican hierarchy: “Whose good names can take no staine, from a bishops chopps” (from “Hay Any Work for Cooper,” by the pseudonymous Martin Marprelate).

Skipping ahead a couple of centuries and crossing the Atlantic, the term came to be used in jazz to mean the power of a trumpeter’s embouchure—the way the lips and tongue are applied to the mouthpiece.

The OED’s earliest example is from the August 1937 issue of the jazz magazine Tempo: “Surely his chops can’t be beat already.”

A few decades later, “chops” came to mean a jazz musician’s skills: “Maybe you could get your chops together on this horn” (from Black Voices: An Anthology of Afro-American Literature, 1968, edited by Abraham Chapman).

And by the late 20th century, according to OED citations, the word meant talent or skill in any field: “Most academic writers just don’t have the chops to make riveting reading out of the quiltwork of 19th-century farm wives” (from the Boston Phoenix, April 27, 1990).

Over the years, “chops” has had several other colloquial senses, especially in American slang, including “to bust someone’s chops” (to harass a person, 1953) and “to bust one’s own chops” (to exert oneself to the utmost, 1966). The dates are for the first OED citations.

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