Friday’s Phrase – Chomping at the Bit

Welcome to the weekly series “Friday’s Phrase”. A whimsical and informative look at the idioms, phrases, proverbs and colloquialisms we commonly use, what they mean, and where they came from.

This week’s phrase:           “chomp(ing) at the bit”

Hopefully you are familiar with this phrase having heard it before. I personally use it often and for once my assumptions on its origin as related to equines was correct, however its earliest version was unfamiliar to me. The phrase began as ‘champing at the bit’.

Current accepted meaning:

Informal

  1. Be restless and impatient to commence; especially during an unwelcome delay.

“After having the race delayed for an hour by rain, the runners were chomping at the bit to get the event started.”

Historical Recorded Use:

The earliest citation of ‘champ at the bit’ that I can find comes in the Reverend Charles Lucas’s work ‘Joseph’, a religious poem, 1810:

“Twelve beauteous steeds, of golden color and with golden manes, champ at the bit.”

Etymology:

As referenced above, the verb ‘champ’ means ‘to make a biting or chewing action with the jaws and teeth’. Of course, it was horses that were first said to be ‘champing at the bit’; the bit being the mouthpiece of a horse’s bridle. Horses normally do this when they are agitated or eager.

Conclusion:

It is easy to surmise that the verb ‘champ’ was easily replaced by ‘chomp’ as this phrase progressed into more modern language use. And we have seen through this series how idioms of this time period often revolve around horses. Before automobiles, horses were an extremely valued commodity and commonly owned. Equine idioms are therefore commonly relatable for the time period.

Bonus Phrase: (provided at no extra charge)

To understand the relatability and commonality of this phrase in its era, we can look at a phrase that is easily understood in the age of automobiles, but would mean nothing to someone in the 18th and early 19th centuries:

‘having a lead foot’

This phrase is so specific to the acceleration associated with aggressive pressing of a gas pedal in a vehicle, that it would hold no frame of reference for anything to do with a horse.

Comments
One Response to “Friday’s Phrase – Chomping at the Bit”
  1. Jim Borden says:

    I was chomping at the bit for the guy with the lead foot to pass me. I enjoy learning about where such phrases come from. Thanks.

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