Chip on Your Shoulder – Origin and Meaning

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

Some idioms sure do generate odd mental images, don’t they? I mean, just think about the phrase “chip on your shoulder” and imagine it. Good thing idioms are not meant to be literal. But, if it’s not literal, what does a “chip on your shoulder” even mean, then? I’ll explain all the details and show you how to properly use it in a sentence.

What Does Chip on Your Shoulder Mean?

Chip on Your Shoulder Origin Meaning

When someone says “chip on your shoulder,” they’re trying to say that you seem like being bothered by something. Basically, we use the phrase to refer to any situation where someone has a deep-seated grievance or some kind of evident resentment, often stemming from a past experience or perceived injustice.

You can also use it to talk about a person with an overly defensive attitude and constantly looks for offense or conflict with bitterness or hostility. Admit it, we all know someone like that.

Chip on Your Shoulder Origin

The idiomatic phrase “chip on your shoulder” has a weird origin story that began in the 19th-century United States. It stems from the practice of boys placing an actual chip of wood on their shoulders and daring someone to knock it off, which would then initiate a fight. Weird, I know.

In the figurative context we use today, the “chip” symbolizes a person’s grievance or resentment, and the challenge to knock it off represents their readiness to confront or argue with others.

Over the years, the phrase evolved into a metaphor for people with a bad attitude who always seem mad about something and are always looking for a reason to fight about it. I had an uncle with a chip on his shoulder, but we just called him a grumpus.

Other Ways of Saying Chip on Your Shoulder

It’s a bit of a mouthful when writing and doesn’t always fit the vibe, so try some of these other words and phrases instead.

  • Grudge-bearing
  • Holding a grudge
  • Harboring resentment
  • Grump
  • Nursing a grievance

Chip on Your Shoulder Sentence Examples

Chip on Your Shoulder Origin Meaning 1
  • Ever since he was thoughtlessly passed over for the promotion, John has had a massive chip on his shoulder and is constantly picking fights with his coworkers.
  • Dani has always had a chip on her shoulder about her abusive upbringing, making her overly sensitive to any body language or insults.
  • If you want to succeed in the publishing industry, you need to let go of the chip on your shoulder from past rejections and focus on building positive relationships with readers and authors.
  • I’d ask Tim to join us on the trip, but he’s had a chip on his shoulder since the last time we went to Mexico, so he might be a downer the whole time.

Bottom Line

So, the next time you notice someone around you is always grumpy and looking to argue, ask them why they have a chip on their shoulder. It’s a common expression that pretty much anyone will recognize. Even if they don’t fully understand the meaning behind it, the intent comes through.