Lots of “Chops”

Chops. Excepting for religious prohibitions, nearly every human omnivore loves that meat-and-potato staple of comfort food kitchens, the humble pork chop. Veal chops are even better, and lamb chops are sublime.

But lately this writer has been hearing and seeing the word in a way that has little to do with food and everything to do with flat-out expertise.

Pork Chops
There are chops …


Hillary Hahn, violin player.
… and then there are chops. Violin soloist Hillary Hahn displays her exquisite mastery of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor OP.64. Commenting on this performance, accompanying conductor Jarvi Share of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra said “Hahn went well beyond her customary excellent intonation and exceptional technique to present something brimming with emotion and enthusiasm, excitement and interpretive imagination.”

Meaning of Chops

Used in its relatively new idiomatic sense, chops denotes noticeable skillfulness as it regards to nearly any undertaking. But also there is a halo of rubber-meets-the-road toughness associated with the term, making it most often reserved for expressing hard won know-how and not merely easily attainable knowledge or inborn talent. In other words, getting one’s chops doesn’t come easy, and recognizing its possession by an individual is a compliment.

As in:

“I don’t know if he has the foreign policy chops to deal with the Russians.”

Or …

“You don’t need some fancy Ivy League drama school degree to play Ophelia. You just have to have the experience, acting or otherwise, and the skills, the heart, the guts – the chops! That’s all.”



We have the musicians and aficionados of America’s most significant original art form – Jazz – to thank for the current meaning and popularity of this idiomatic term. However, the word itself can be traced all the way back to medieval times, from the Middle English choppen (to chop or cut), and then several hundred years later to 1577, when chops occurred in print as a synonym for jaws, as cited by Jonathon Green, noted slang lexicographer.

From there on the etymological record seems to be sparse, at least according to my web explorations. While chops retained its mandibular meaning, the expression later expanded to also denote the entire mouth/chewing apparatus – cheeks, lips, teeth (as in choppers), jaws, and any attendant muscles, tendons, and skin.

Dizzy Gillespie
“Dizzy” Gillespie (October 21, 1917 – January 6, 1993). Gillespie, with Charlie Parker, became a major figure in the development of bebop and modern jazz, and one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time. His embouchure/chops was terrible, probably because of him being self-taught and combined with the relentless physical stress of hours and hours practice. But the music that poured out of those “blown” cheeks was god-like, at least to this listener. He had the chops, ne plus ultra.

But back to Jazz – born of West African musical and rhythmic traditions and heavily influenced by ragtime, the blues and even European marching band music, jazz emerged first in New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (although Chicagoans might argue that.)

Brad Bone, trumpet player
In a nifty little tutorial, experienced band leader Brad Bone, at 33 seconds, demonstrates his method for producing an embouchure for a trumpet’s mouthpiece, or as Brad succinctly puts it, “forming your mouth to make a sound”, i.e., develop your chops.

With instruments like trumpets, trombones, saxophones and clarinets so predominant in this new kind of music, players needed a word to signify the position and use of the lips, tongue, teeth and cheeks in order to achieve maximum performance while playing a wind instrument. So the slang word chops was appropriated and used to achieve a pretty close approximation to the word embouchure (regarding the proper control of a woodwind’s mouthpiece) already a part of the formal lexicon of European music.

Again, according to Green, the first written appearance of chops used this way was in the January 1942 issue of Metronome, an American jazz magazine. In the next decades, chops broadened in meaning to include not just technical virtuosity but also in-depth knowledge and/or skill concerning any particular field of activity.

So today it can be said, at least informally, to having the chops to succeed, be it music, acting, diplomacy, running an organic farm, designing high-performance automobiles – you name it – is praise indeed.


Another Idiomatic Appearance of Chops

The Wayback Machine
I digress. Mr. Peabody, right, with his boy Sherman, from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (1960–1964) shown entering the “Way Back Machine,” a device of Peabody’s own invention that enabled both characters to travel back in time. See reference below.

Moving along, by setting the “Way Back Machine” ahead for a change (don’t tell Mr. Peabody), it can then be noted that new expressions containing the term chops started to emerge from the 1950s on, including to bust someone’s chops (meaning literally, to punch somebody in the mouth or jaws, but mostly, metaphorically, as in “to severely reprimand somebody for something.”) Also the idiom gained a self-referential sense – to bust my chops (to exert oneself in the course of some activity.)

Ramones song, Don't Bust my Chops
Don’t Bust My Chops, on the B-side of a single by the punk rock band The Ramones (1989). But the lyrics include this memorable line: “Don’t bust my chops, baby, don’t bust my chops, Yeah!”


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