Head on the chopping block and on the chopping block

Head on the chopping block and on the chopping block are idioms that have a literal origin. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often descriptors that are spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase or expression that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions that native speakers understand such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, chin up, eye to eye, barking up the wrong tree, bite the bullet, beat a dead horse, hit the nail on the head, kicked the bucket, blow off steam, jump on the bandwagon, piece of cake, hit the sack, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the idioms head on the chopping block and on the chopping block, where they came from, and some examples of its use in sentences.

To have one’s head on the chopping block means one is in danger of being fired or being singled out for criticism or reprimand. One may put one’s head on the chopping block by taking a risk or doing something stupid. The idiom have one’s head on the chopping block is derived from the practice of executing criminals by severing their heads from their bodies by using an axe or a sword. The condemned would lay his head on a block of wood and stretch his neck so the executioner could sever his head from his body. Henry VIII of England was famous for executing two of his wives in this manner, sending to France for a professional executioner who would get the job done cleanly and quickly. Today, a chopping block usually means a cutting board used in cooking.

On the chopping block may mean that one is in danger of being fired or singled out for criticism or reprimand, or it may mean that a program, idea, or system is being considered for termination. For instance, a product line that is not selling well for a manufacturer may be on the chopping block. The idiom on the chopping block is an abbreviated form of the idiom head on the chopping block.


“He might have his head on the chopping block,” Dunn Tenpas said about Ross’ fate. (Fortune Magazine)

“I think we need to look closely at that if we expect him and his group to come here and give us the wonderful news that they do, and then he’s got his head on the chopping block,” Adcock said. (The Arkansas Times)

“We were growing at the time, and that’s something the people who made the decision of potentially putting us on the chopping block weren’t aware of,” Buller said. (The Lincoln Journal Star)

The Bluefield Blue Jays and Princeton Rays are two of the teams in minor league baseball that are on the chopping block under a new proposal from Major League Baseball. (The Bluefield Daily Telegraph)

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