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