Doesn't have the chops. . .

Discuss word origins and meanings.
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Doesn't have the chops. . .

Post by RWalter » Fri Jul 08, 2005 11:24 pm

This seems to be common phrase to describe someone who doesn't have the talent or motivation to successfully complete a task. A wordwizard search gives lots of examples of "chops" as a reference to jawbone (as in, "I busted him in the chops"), but I don't quite see the anatomical connection here. Perhaps chops in this sense is an allusion to "jowls", meaning someone who is seasoned and wise (ala Marlon Brando in the Godfather). Any thoughts?

Doesn't have the chops. . .

Post by Shelley » Sat Jul 09, 2005 12:10 am

In searching this on WW, I looked at a discussion about words that had changed meaning in the past decade ("thread", for example), and Ken Greenwald included this about "chops"
I happened to be looking at either the Random House or Merriam-Webster website (can't remember which) and they were discussing words whose meanings have changed in just the last few years and they mentioned burn, chops, and rave. The definitions given were,
Burn: To record data (on an optical disk) with a laser
Chops: (slang) Expertise in a particular field or activity.
Rave: A large overnight dance party featuring techno music and usually involving the taking of mind-altering drugs.

This word has always had a music context for me: chops meaning skill at playing (jazz?) -- and I associate it with dexterity in the fingers. Maybe the "chops" connection in rock and/or jazz has to do with calling a guitar an "axe". I read a lot of the prior threads on "chops", and most of them talked about jawbones, and busting chops having to do with making a supreme effort, or being victimized in some way. I think of busting chops as working really hard. But "not having the chops" is something else (to me, anyway): not possessing the skills (particularly in the hands).

Doesn't have the chops. . .

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sun Jul 10, 2005 6:10 pm

Robert and Shelley, Now, being older and wiser than when I posted the above, I can give a more complete answer for CHOPS and hence DOESN’T HAVE THE CHOPS. And Shelley, you were right about the expression coming from music, except that the anatomical connection is the mouth (as is also the case with bust my chops).

Combining the appropriate definitions from several dictionaries:


1) The oral cavity, mouth, lips, jaw, cheeks, jowls <“old turkey with pendulous chops”> < “open your chops and sing>

2) Music - a) Slang: The embouchure or technique necessary to play a wind instrument; broadly – the technical facility of a musical performer. b) The adjustment of a player's mouth to such a mouthpiece, especially a jazz musicians lips.

[[Note: ‘embouchure’ [1750-60] derives from French, equivalent to ‘embouch(er),’ to put (an instrument) to one’s mouth (‘em-,’ em-, + ‘bouche,’ mouth, from Latin ‘bucca,’ puffed cheek) + ‘-ure,’ -ure.] and means a) the mouthpiece of a wind instrument.]]

3) Slang: [1960s and till in use] Musical technique or ability on an instrument, especially in playing jazz or rock; the technical skill with which a jazz or rock musician performs; technical virtuosity; a jazz singer’s tone or strength of voice

4) Slang: (hence) Talent or skill in general. Expertise in a particular field or activity <acting ‘chops’>

Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang

CHOPS noun: 1) [18th century and still in use] The jaws, the mouth, the lips. 2) [1940s and still in use] (originally U.S. Black) Ability, skill, competence. [from jazz musicians figurative reference to the use of one’s mouth and lips in playing a wind instrument]


Historical Dictionary of American Slang (also including OED and other quotes)

CHOPS [originally dialect and colloquial; cf. early Standard English sense, ‘jaws’]

1a) Now especially Black English: the mouth or lips; (occasionally) teeth.
<1589 “Whose good name can take no staine, from a bishops CHOPPS.”—in OED>

<1939 “Louis . . . silently fingers his valves, while ‘getting his CHOPS set.’”—‘Jazz Talk’ by Gold, page 48>
2a) Jazz: A trumpet players strength of embouchure.
<1947 “He MIGHT NOT HAVE THE CHOPS he used to have, but his ideas were always fine.”—‘Jazz Talk’ by Gold, page 48>

<1962 “You’d need . . . practice to GET YOUR CHOPS . . . BACK.”—‘On Eggshells’ by H. Simmons, page 187>

<1993 “Other’s would have killed to have his [Dizzy Gillespie’s] CHOPS.”—‘Newsweek,’ 18 January, page 39>
2b) Originally Jazz musical ability; (hence) ability or skill of any sort.
<1968 “Maybe you could GET YOUR CHOPS together on this horn.”—‘New Black Voices’ by A. Chapman, page 147>

<1973 “Musicians . . . who like to get together once or twice a week to TRY OUT THEIR CHOPS.”—‘Music My Mistress’ by Duke Ellington, page 247>

<1979 “Those early fears and feelings of musical inadequacy . . . seem now dreamlike . . . ‘He GOT HIS CHOPS BACK.’”—‘Straight Life’ by Pepper & Pepper, page 199>

<1980 “‘I wanted to be a symphony conductor, but realized that I just DIDN’T HAVE THE CHOPS.”—‘Chicago Tribune,’ 16 November, page F47>

<1981 “Even though you HAVEN’T GOT MUCH CHOPS, you have other qualities to create excitement.”—High Times’ by O’Day & Eells, page 52> [[reference to a singer’s tone or strength of voice the in the 1930s]]

<1991 “‘As a matter of fact,’ he said, ‘we don’t teach stand-up comedy as an art form. If you don’t have the chops” — musicians’ parlance for talent — ‘you can only get so far.’”—N.Y. Times,’ 27 October, page 1>

<1994 “‘For another women, it would be difficult. And it’s even worse if you’re a women director who wants to make action films. There’s some sense that a woman just DOESN’T HAVE THE CHOPS.’”—‘N.Y. Times,’ 3 May, page C15>

<1997 “Jim Brooks thinks Hunt has ‘the whole package.’ He cites Katharine Hepburn, an actress equally adept in comedy and drama, a beauty who could play heiress or spinster. Says Brooks: ‘Helen [[actress Helen Hunt]] just might HAVE THOSE CHOPS too.’"—‘Time Magazine,’ 15 December>

<1998 “Doug Conner remarked that this feeling [[that no one realizes the work that goes into making it look easy]] is familiar to every jazz musician: ‘Some people think you’re just up there goofing around—they can’t see the foundations. But you’ve got to HAVE THE CHOPS plus years of experience, and you’re dependent on the good will of all those who came before you.”—in ‘Organizational Science’ – ‘Jazz Improvisation and Organizing,’ Vol. 9, No. 5, September, ;page 573>

<2004 “Thankfully, Winkler showed intelligence by casting Kevin Kline as Porter. He HAS THE CHOPS to pull off a role that requires some semblance of depth.”—‘Miami Herald,’ 16 July

<2005 “If Hollywood hasn't been clued in to Jennifer Lopez's limited range and appeal by now, this one will probably do it. She DOESN’T HAVE THE CHOPS to pull off what's necessary to deliver laughs in this romantic comedy.”–‘Akron Beacon Journal,’ 13 May>
And Shelley, there IS the AXE factor, but it seems to have come later on:

AX or AXE: [1950s] a) Jazz musicians used this term to refer to any musical instrument, but especially the saxophone [originally from the resemblance in shape between a saxophone and an ax, and possibly from the rhyme with ‘sax.’ Also related to the transferred idea of CHOPS, originally related to a musician’s embouchure, then later often thought of as blows with an ax] <“The piano player noodled on his Ax”.> b) In rock and roll, a guitar.

(Random House and Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionaries, American Heritage Dictionary, Merriam Webster Online, Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Chapman’s Dictionary of American Slang, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang)

Ken G – July 10, 2005

Doesn't have the chops. . .

Post by dalehileman » Sun Jul 10, 2005 6:44 pm

Ken, thank you for that. In all seriousness, how long did it take to compose your followup

Forgive me if I asked this before, but if they came from Google how did you compile the examples in small font without individually opening each hit---Thanks--

Doesn't have the chops. . .

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sun Jul 10, 2005 8:25 pm

Dale, Its hard to say because I work in chunks between other activities, but I probably spent something like over an hour on it last night and about an additional hour or so on it today – so I’d say on the order of more than 2 hours and less than 3. And yes, I do have to open each internet hit and copy and paste, and for the OED I copy and paste from the online version. However, I often don’t have to waste a lot of time searching though random Google hits and can find what I need by using the historical search facilities I have described in what Erik has dubbed my essential tips, which does save quite a bit of time.

Ken – July 10, 2005

Doesn't have the chops. . .

Post by Shelley » Sun Jul 10, 2005 9:28 pm

This is so interesting! Of course, "chops" => mouth, teeth, -- Louis (Armstrong?) . . . 'getting his chops set'. I get it. Ax (axe) => sax. Sure! It all fits when you put in the context of wind or brass instruments. (I got ax for guitar, because I knew this guitar player once who called himself Ax-man. Seemed clear to me, at the time.)

Doesn't have the chops. . .

Post by Bobinwales » Mon Jul 11, 2005 9:09 am

What about chop meaning a cut of meat?
Signature: All those years gone to waist!
Bob in Wales

Doesn't have the chops. . .

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Jul 11, 2005 4:21 pm

Bob, CHOP, the piece of meat, is from the verb ‘to chop.’

CHOP [circa 1640]: A slice of meat, usually mutton or pork, including generally a rib, intended to be cooked and served by itself.
<circa 1640 “A CHOP of mutton, Or a pint of drum-wine.”— ‘The City Madam’ by Massinger, III. i>

<1663 “Had a CHOP of veale.”—in ‘Diary,’ 9 July, by Pepys>

<1693 “A cut or CHOP of meat.”—‘Phraseologia Generalis’ by W. Robertson, page 417>
(Oxford English Dictionary)

Ken G – July 11, 2005

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