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Idiom: Champing at the Bit

Tracing the usage of champing at the bit

Champing? Chomping? Chewing? Chafing?

While you may be accustomed to hearing “chomping at the bit” or some variation thereof, the historically (and grammatically) correct phrasing is “champing at the bit.”

The phrase refers to impatience, restlessness, even eagerness to get on with something.

The phrase comes from the verb “to champ,” which means to bite or grind your teeth impatiently. Chomp, on the other hand, means to chew food noisily. The phrase “champing at the bit” is specific to when a horse is gnashing at the bit on his bridle while waiting for his rider to get on with the ride.

“Champing at the bit” has been used as an idiom since the 17th century, with the verb “champ” coming to us from the early 16th century. The phrase would have been popular during the Georgian era amongst riders, most specifically at horse races, as this was mostly track slang, not something you would hear in the drawing room and not something a proper young lady would have likely thought or said unless she spent too much time in the stables and overheard it from the stablehands.

Etymologically speaking, we don’t see “chafing at the bit” until the late Victorian era, and it doesn’t gain popularity until the 1980s. “Chomping at the bit” is an Americanism that doesn't gain traction until the 1990s.

While this isn’t an idiom originating in the Georgian era, it would have been a popular figurative phrase used, at least amongst horse owners. I can’t imagine Lord and Lady Fiddlesticks saying it at the dinner table, though.

With which variation are you most familiar?


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