What Does A Chip on Your Shoulder Mean?

A Chip on Your Shoulder Meaning

Definition: A bad attitude that tends to get someone upset easily, oftentimes stemming from a grudge held against someone.

The idiom chip on one’s shoulder refers to someone with a belligerent attitude or grievance, which usually comes from a grudge one holds against someone or something.

This bad attitude most often refers to perceived unjust treatment. For example, someone might say Joe has a chip on his shoulder because Trevor won the race, despite the fact that Joe has won more races than Trevor has.

Origin of A Chip on Your Shoulder

 a chip on the should definitionThere are several theories about the origin of this idiom, although none have been confirmed. During the 18th century, this phrase had a literal meaning. The Royal Navy Board issued an ordinance that allowed shipwrights who worked on the docks to take home leftover wood for their own use. This ordinance declared that shipwrights were to carry chips on their shoulders so that officers could inspect them.

Another theory is that people who wanted to engage in a fight would put a chip of wood on their shoulder and dare others to attempt to knock it off.

In the May 20, 1830 edition of the Long Island Telegraph, we can see this meaning of the phrase,

When two churlish boys were determined to fight, a chip would be places on the shoulder of one and the other demanded to knock if off at his peril.

what does chip on your shoulder meanIn this sense, chip referred to the piece of wood that dockworkers wanted to take home, or to the literal chip of wood potential fighters would place on their shoulders.

The idiom’s figurative meaning first appeared in William Somerset Maugham’s The Gentleman in the Parlour:

He was a man with a chip on his shoulder. Everyone seemed in a conspiracy to slight or injure him.

This use has the same meaning as the modern idiom.

Examples of A Chip on Your Shoulder

The sample conversation between two friends illustrates the correct use of this idiom.

Ursula: Why is Quentin grumpy today?

Betty: Oh, he’s just got a chip on his shoulder because Bill got hired for the job instead of him.

More Examples

  • He never settled after he tried to rebel against the crown, he’s always held a chip on his shoulder against the Starks, he refuses to recognize his own son and then he leaves him to be tortured at the hands of Ramsay. – LA Times
  • “I don’t think he has a chip on his shoulder about his lack of velocity.” – Chicago Tribune


The English idiom a chip on one’s shoulder refers to someone who has a bad attitude and angers easily, often because of a perceived injustice.