Q From Steve Haywood: So why do we chew the fat while we’re talking? The idea I’ve heard that you might hack off a piece of your bacon for guests as it was curing in the hearth seems preposterous to me. Surely there’s a better explanation?
A These days we mean by it that people are chatting or gossiping to pass the time to no very deep purpose. When it first appeared, though, it meant to grumble or complain.
Some wonderfully literal-minded stories have been invented with which to explain its origin, especially in North America, where it has been linked to native peoples, American Indians or Inuit, who would chew hides to soften them, an activity carried out in their spare time. The tale you mention first appeared around 1999 in a widely circulated humorous message with the title Life in 1500 that purports to give the origins of several puzzling expressions. It still annoyingly pops up from time to time and has unfortunately been widely taken to be accurate:
Sometimes people could obtain pork and would feel really special when that happened. When company came over, they would bring out some bacon and hang it to show it off. It was a sign of wealth and that a man “could really bring home the bacon.” They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and “chew the fat.”
Like the other stories in the message, it’s rubbish, of course. For a start, the expression is about four centuries less old than the tale suggests.
The first reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is in a book by J Brunlees Patterson published in 1885, Life in the Ranks of the British Army in India. He suggested it was a term for the kind of generalised grumbling, the bending of the ears of junior officers as a way of staving off boredom, that’s an immemorial part of army life. It also appears in the famous 1891 British compilation Slang and Its Analogues by John Farmer and William Henley; it is likewise said to be of military origin and mean grumbling. The next examples we have are from the US, dating from the early part of the twentieth century. It became more common over the next decade on both sides of the Atlantic and weakened until it just meant idle chat.
Mr Patterson also records the phrase chew the rag, which at one point he uses in the same sentence as chew the fat and which he obviously considered to be synonymous. This is a little older — an example is recorded in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang from about 1875: “Gents, I could chew the rag hours on end, just spilling out the words and never know no more than a billy-goat what I’d been saying”. The OED has an example of 1891 taken from James Dixon’s Dictionary of Idiomatic English Phrases, which was published in Shanghai; the author glosses it as “to be sullen and abusive. A phrase common in the army”. Chew the rag is much more widely recorded from the US from about 1895 onwards than is chew the fat and becomes commonly known both there and in the UK in the decades that followed.
The 1875 US example of chew the rag sounds like the modern meaning but the slightly later British ones are in the military sense of grumbling. This may indicate independent creation. The dating and geographical distribution of citations leave us with some unanswered questions, too. However, it looks from the evidence as though chew the fat is a modification of chew the rag. If it is, then the origin is probably in the US.
But we don’t need to invoke any literal interpretations, either of chewing rags or fat. It’s enough to compare the steady chomping of the jaws in chewing with the mouth movements of conversation to see where the figurative sense came from. The image of a person biting down on something so uncongenial and unrewarding as a rag, like an angry dog worrying a bit of cloth, is enough to evoke the original sense of grumbling and discontent in chew the rag. Chewing a piece of fat would also require a lot of heavy jaw work and may have suggested a similar image.