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Q From William Armstrong, Atlanta, Georgia: In a book review in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote, “It’s as if an acrobatic but show-offy performance artist ... had decided to do an old-fashioned play and, in the process, proved his chops as an actor.” I’m sure she’s not referring to a delicious meal here. What do chops have to do with credentials?

A Nothing at all, Mr Armstrong. The two senses come from different sources.

A chop in the sense of a cut of meat is just a piece that has been chopped off the animal. It’s from the verb that means to cut with a quick and heavy blow. (This used to be spelled chap and survives separately in the sense of cracking the skin, as in chapped lips.) The other chop — for a person’s skills or talents — is a distinct word, originally meaning the jaws — as in licking one’s chops — but later extended to refer to the whole mouth area, especially the cheeks. This led to the British slang chubby chops for a child with a fat face.

In the 1940s or thereabouts, chops began to be used in American slang for the power of a jazz trumpeter’s embouchure, the way in which he applied his mouth to the instrument, and so came to mean the quality and versatility of his playing. It was extended to describe the skills and talent of any musician and then even more to those of any artist in any field, sometimes as a play on words:

She will present her Kazaam Salad at the State Fair, demonstrating not only her culinary chops, but also the science to back up her claim that it contains everything a person would need to eat in a day.

Minneapolis Star Tribune, 1 Sep. 2009.

Neither of these senses of chop have anything to do with others in the language, such as the one for an official signature or stamp; we think of it as Chinese, but it started out as the Hindi chap, a stamp or brand — it was taken to China by European traders, where it altered its meaning. Chop-chop, on the other hand, really is Chinese, a Pidgin English bending of the dialectal kuaì-kuaì. In chop and change, to continually alter one’s actions or opinions, chop is from a Middle English word, chap, that meant to barter or exchange (hence chapman for a peddler).

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Page created 11 Sep 2010