A language column that will bust your chops

English has a lot of “chops.” If you bust your chops to buy some chops, your partner may bust your chops for getting filet mignon instead of tenderloin, and question your shopping chops. 

Context is everything. When you pass by a restaurant whose sign advertises “chops,” you know that it sells cuts of meat; a “chophouse” probably specializes in steaks. That seems almost counterintuitive, since “chops” are used most often for cuts of lamb, veal, and pork; a sirloin rarely is called a “chop” unless it’s “chopped sirloin.” That’s when we get into adjectives, where we don’t want to go, unless we are in the mood for a hamburger.

Those meat “chops” come from the verb “to chop,” or cut with a heavy blow, and that relationship seems clear, though the verb emerged in the mid-14th century and the meat chop waited until the mid-17th century. It’s less clear where “chop” came from to start with. The Oxford English Dictionary traces a possible relationship to the verb “to chap,” which means “To crack, cause to crack in fissures,” but can’t make a definitive connection to any other language.

If someone says “stop busting my chops,” you know they want you to stop annoying them, criticizing them, or otherwise being negative. “Busting my chops” is a figurative way to say “stop hitting me in the face,” with “chops” meaning “jaw.” This “chop” traces to about 1513, the OED says, and also has some tenuous connection with another form of “chap,” meaning, the OED says without irony: “The jaws as unitedly forming the mouth; the biting and devouring apparatus. Used of animals, esp. beasts of prey; and applied contemptuously or humorously to human beings.” 

In journalism, it usually appears only in quotations, as in a basketball coach who said of a player, “He was busting my chops last night because someone said something about me delivering pizza to the dorms, and he started calling me the pizza guy.”But if you are busting your own chops, you are exerting yourself to the fullest, as in the high school athlete who said, “I just have to bust my chops during the summer to get a little bit better.”

Then, there are “muttonchops,” or sideburns that might bear some resemblance to a lamb chop, but are growing close to a man’s “chops.” That usage is relatively recent, tracing only to 1851, when “muttonchops” were the height of hirsute fashion.

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In another usage, a programmer “lacked the advanced coding chops to create his ideal blockchain,” Wired wrote. One definition of “chops” in Merriam-Webster is “expertise in a particular field or activity.” This may (or may not) be related to the official imprimatur on documents or objects in China and India. These “chops,” blocks carved with a signature, seal, or symbol, indicated authenticity and quality. “Earning your chops” is similar to the military-derived term “earning your stripes,” meaning having gained enough experience to qualify for the next level.

Meanwhile, a band in Oregon “shows its lively, hopping chops in 30 to 50 live shows per year.” That one could be taken in two ways. It could simply mean expertise, or it could mean musical expertise. Musical “chops” comes from the word “embouchure,” which M-W defines as “the position and use of the lips, tongue, and teeth in playing a wind instrument” or the mouthpiece of any musical instrument. “Embouchure” comes from French, where “bouche” means “mouth.” The first “embouchure” in English, in 1792, referred to the mouth of a river or creek, the OED says; the musical “chops” emerged in 1834, but Green’s Dictionary of Slang ties musical “chops” to black jazz vernacular in a 1947 music magazine, Metronome: “He might not have the chops he used to have, but his ideas are always fine.”

Other noun uses of “chop” include “a short abrupt motion (as of a wave),” as M-W says, though we usually see that as the adjective “choppy”; being suddenly removed from job, as in “he got the chop today,” which is chiefly British; and another word for barter or exchange, which morphed into the phrase “chop and change,” meaning to change frequently, often annoyingly so. “I think you’ve got to be careful not to chop and change based on the result,” a college soccer coach said. It’s a rare use of the phrase in a U.S. publication, though it’s all over British, Australian, Canadian, Indian, and New Zealand publications, often in, um, stories about soccer. Is that the vector?

Last are two definitions in the NSFW category, from Urban Dictionary. A mixture of tobacco and marijuana is sometimes called “chop,” and “she got chops” may be said of a woman “who is blessed gracefully from the heavens above in the butt region or hips.”

Maybe we have enough “chops” without those.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.