Q: What’s the origin of the word “chap”? The British seem to use it the way Americans use “guy.” Does it apply only to men? Or could a Brit say a woman is “one of the chaps” as we’d say she’s “one of the guys”?
A: The noun “chap” has been used since the early 18th century to mean a man or boy. The usage is primarily British and began life as a shortening of “chapman,” an obsolete term for a merchant that dates back to Anglo-Saxon days. (We’ll have more on “chapman” later.)
“Chap” is used once in a while for a woman, but not all that much. One of the few examples we’ve seen is from the first episode of The Vicar of Dibley, a British sitcom that began airing on Nov. 10, 1994.
After the Rev. Geraldine Granger arrives at St. Barnabas as vicar, one of the villagers says, “She seemed a decent chap to me,” while another replies, “That’s the point. She’s not a chap.”
The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has this early example for the term “humorously applied” to a woman:
“Nought would do / But I maun gang [must go], that bonny chap to woo.” From Helenore, or the Fortunate Shepherdess (1768), the major work of the Scottish poet Alexander Ross.
Feminized versions of “chap” are sometimes used humorously now, especially in the phrases “chaps and chapesses” and “chaps and chapettes,” but this usage isn’t all that common either, according to our searches of news databases.
We haven’t found any standard American or British dictionary that accepts the use of “chap” as a gender-neutral term. All the ones we’ve consulted define it in this sense as a chiefly British noun for a man or boy. Some label it informal.
None of the dictionaries have an entry for “chapette,” but one, Collins, includes “chapess” and defines it as an “informal, humorous” British noun for a woman.
The collaborative Wiktionary, which defines “chap” as a man or fellow, has entries for “chapess” and “chapette.” Both are defined as informal British terms for a “female chap; a woman.” Usage notes add that they’re generally found in the two plural phrases cited earlier.
In looking into your question, we came across a Dec. 27, 2017, article in the Times (London) about gender-neutral guidelines at a military training base in England for future officers.
The two-page document, written by the Joint Equality Diversity and Inclusion unit at the Defence Academy in Shrivenham, Oxfordshire, suggests that “chaps” and other gendered words be replaced by such terms as “people, folks, friends or you all.”
So the British military (at least the unit nicknamed JEDI) considers “chaps” a gendered word—unlike the non-gendered plural “guys,” which appears in both US and UK standard dictionaries.
Some British dictionaries describe the use of “guys” for men and women as American, though Oxford Dictionaries Online defines the usage both in its US and UK editions as “People of either sex,” and gives this example: “you guys want some coffee?”
Interestingly, English has four distinct “chap” words. Here are the senses: (1) a man or boy, (2) cut or roughened, as in chapped lips, (3) the jaws or cheeks, and (4) cowboy leggings.
As we said earlier, the use of “chap” in sense #1 is a shortening of “chapman,” an old term for a trader or dealer. The word was céapmann in Old English, where céapian meant to buy and sell, and céap meant bargaining. Yes, those Anglo-Saxon words are ancestors of our adjective “cheap,” which as you know may describe something that’s a bargain.
The earliest OED example for “chap” used to mean a man or boy is from A Complete History of Algiers (1728), by Joseph Morgan: “ ‘Prithee!’ returned my scornful, choleric Chap; ‘Don’t compare Me to any of your scoundrel Barbarians!’ ”
As for sense #2, “chap” first appeared in Middle English as a verb meaning to “remove by chopping,” according to the OED, which cites this example:
“Anon her [their] hedes wer off chappyd.” From Richard Coer de Lyon, a poem believed written in the early 1300s about the storied exploits of King Richard I of England during the Third Crusade.
(The verb “chop” showed up in the mid-1300s as simply another form of “chap,” the OED notes. Although there were similar words in other Germanic languages, the ultimate source for the cutting sense of “chap” and “chop” is uncertain.)
By the late 14th century, Oxford says, “chap” was being used as a noun meaning a “painful fissure or crack in the skin, descending to the flesh: chiefly caused by exposure of hands, lips, etc., to frost or cold wind.”
The first OED citation is from John Trevisa’s 1398 translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Order of Things”), an encyclopedic Latin reference compiled in the 13th century by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus:
“Lepra … makyth chappes, chynnes and clyftes” (“Leprosy … maketh chaps, chinks and clefts”).
Early in the next century, the OED says, the verb “chap” came to mean to “crack, cause to crack in fissures.” The earliest citation is from a translation, dated around 1420, of a Latin book about agriculture:
“And yf thai [“they,” the roots of a flowering tree] chappe, a stoone under the heed Roote is to doo.” From a Middle English translation of Opus Agriculturae, also known as De Re Rustica, written by Palladius in the late 4th or early 5th century.
The participial adjective “chapped” showed up in the mid-15th century. The first Oxford example is from the The Towneley Plays, a series of mystery plays (dramas based on biblical stories) believed written sometime before 1460: “My fyngers ar chappyd.”
The earliest example we’ve seen for “chapped lips” is from an April 11, 1823, letter by Francis Hall from Soatá, Colombia: “at the expiration of five hours we gained the summit of the Paramo without any other inconvenience than chapped lips.”
(The Páramo is an ecosystem in the Colombian Andes. Hall, a retired British army officer, joined Simón Bolívar’s independence movement in South America and later became a hydrographer for the Colombian government.)
The use of “chaps” to mean the jaws or cheeks (sense #3) showed up in the mid-16th century, and is now primarily used for the cheeks, or jowls, of a pig. The first OED citation is from a 1555 translation of a Latin history of Spain’s explorations in the New World:
“The hooke ouerthwarteth and catcheth hold of his [a shark’s] chappes” (from The Decades of the Newe Worlde, Richard Eden’s translation of an early 16th-century work by the Italian historian Peter Martyr of Angleria).
The use of “chops” to mean the jaws or mouth appeared a few decades later, as we wrote in a recent post about musical “chops,” or skill. A singular use of “chop” (spelled “choip”) to mean jaw showed up in the early 1500s.
Finally, sense #4, the use of “chaps” for the leggings worn by cowboys, appeared in the late 19th century. As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the term “is short for Mexican Spanish chaparreras, a derivative of Spanish chaparro ‘evergreen oak.’ ”
Ayto adds that “they were named from their use in protecting the legs of riders from the low thick scrub that grows in Mexico and Texas (named with another derivative of chaparro, chaparral). Chaparro itself probably comes from Basque txapar, a diminutive of saphar ‘thicket.’ ”
The earliest OED example for this sense of “chaps,” which we’ve expanded, is from Baled Hay (1884), a collection of sketches by the American humorist Bill Nye:
“ ‘Chaps,’ as they are vulgarly called, deserve more than passing notice. They are made of leather with fronts of dogskin with the hair on. … ‘Chaps’ are rather attractive while the wearer is on horseback, or walking toward you, but … the seat of the garment has been postponed.”