Idioms are words or phrases with a different meaning than their literal definition, and they often cause confusion in their use—especially for anyone new to the language.
Chew the fat is especially controversial in its use mainly because so many myths surround its origins. We’ve traced its etymology to help provide you with the most accurate literal source to better understand the connotative use in speech and writing.
What Does Chew the Fat Mean?
The idiom chew the fat means to converse idly, to make small talk, or to spread gossip. The idiomatic expression chew the fat invokes the imagery of jaws working furiously in an opening and closing motion and has often been associated with spreading stories about events or other people.
- We spent a few extra moments just chewing the fat and catching up with the community’s news and gossip as a way to avoid getting back to work.
- She didn’t mind walking while she chewed the fat on a telephone call, but she hated to have to sit still and take a call.
- Small towns still have neighborhood gathering spots where people can sit around sharing a few drinks, chew the fat, or both.
Origins of the Idiom Chew the Fat
As you can see in the nGram, the phrase chew the fat wasn’t in general speech or writing before the late 1800s, which completely destroys the most widely spread myth of its inceptions. It likely originated from the more common expression chew the rag, as we explore below through etymological evidence.
The Myths Behind Chew the Fat
The most widely accepted myth, which is highly believable and logical (albeit completely false), states that chew the fat came into use during the 16th century. If a family acquired a good, fatty cut of pork, they would invite people over to show off their wealth and serve small pieces of it to their guests—hence “chew the fat” while they visited and ate.
The problem with this story is there is nothing to support it. It first appeared in a book called Life in 1500, published in 1999, that claims to provide the origins of other puzzling expressions, all without any type of primary sources, making the entire book suspect. The author certainly had a good imagination as many of the false stories have made their way into the general public and have been republished over and over to the consternation of people who actually appreciate the truth.
So, if you’ve heard this myth or seen it published elsewhere, ignore it. The site it’s published on isn’t fact-checking its own material and should not be considered a reliable source for any information.
Other logical explanations exist as well, all of which have never been proven with etymological evidence. These include the social time Native Tribes of North America spent together while chewing dried hides to soften them for use and sailors’ eating habits when they chew on salted and dried fish and meat when at sea.
The Truth Behind Chew the Fat
The first published reference of chewing the fat first appeared in J. Brunlees Patterson’s book Life in the Ranks of the British Army in 1885. Published in India, it suggested the phrase was a way to describe the general complaints or grumbling of junior officers in the military as a part of army life. Patterson describes its use alongside the phrase chew the rag, an older expression, to mean the two were synonymous with one another.
It shows up again in the famous publication, Slang and Its Analogues in 1891 as a compilation of popular British phrases, especially military-related ones. It is also described as a military term to mean grumbling.
It became more common over the next few decades and has weakened in its meaning to encompass not only general grumbling or complaints but also idle chat or gossip.
Despite the many logical myths surrounding the origins of chew the fat, it is a fairly recent term related to the older phrase, chew the rag, and is related to British military slang meaning to complain or grumble about things.
Today it means to sit around and chat, gossip, or complain and is a way to describe the passing of time through conversation.