Chip on Shoulder refers to the idiomatic expression, To Have a Chip on One’s Shoulder, which means that one is holding a grudge, and is ready to act out if provoked.
Today, it is used in a variety of ways, but it always includes a large amount of frustration. It may be directed toward a person, a group or a certain state of affairs one is discontent with.
“Chip on Shoulder” is a widely used phrase, appearing in movies, TV series, as well as song lyrics.
“Chip on Shoulder” has an interesting origin story, going back to the city of New York in the early 19th century.
Street urchins of the era had a custom, where if they were involved in a dispute, or disagreement, one would place a wooden chip onto their shoulder and dared the other to knock it down. If it was knocked down, that was used as a legitimate reason to start a fight.
An early source, mentioning the custom is an 1830 issue of the Long Island Telegraph, which describes the way street kids settle their scores.
“Chip on Shoulder” was also included in a manuscript of Mark Twain‘s Schoolhouse Hill, where Tom Sawyer also uses the expression, while giving advice on how to start a fight.
By the turn of the 20th century, “Chip on Shoulder” spread across the United States, as well as some regions of Canada, and although the original custom of beginning a brawl with a wood chip faded away, its linguistic footprint remains to this day.
“Chip on Shoulder” had become a constantly reoccurring phrase in music as well, appearing in the lyrics of such prominent artists as The Beetles, AC/DC and Kendrick Lamar.
Despite its long use, the phrase is still widely encountered today, both on- and offline, used by grudging people, who are willing to escalate their disagreement.