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Chip off the old block

Q From Vijay Renganathan: I got into a discussion about chip off the old block with friends, and we are wondering if it had to do with sculpting, jewelry making, woodworking, or none of the above. What does this term mean, and where did it come from?

A The associations are with carpentry, and the block is definitely made of wood.

The first form of the expression was chip of the same block, meaning that a person or thing was made of the same stuff as somebody or something else, so from the same source or parentage. An early example is in a sermon by Dr Robert Sanderson (at one time Bishop of Lincoln), dated 1637: “Am not I a child of the same Adam ... a chip of the same block, with him?”.

Later that century, another form is recorded a chip of the old block, which meant that somebody was the spitting image of his father, or continued some family characteristic. At some point, probably late in the nineteenth century, this was modified to a chip off the old block, which does nothing to change the sense, but is the way it’s now usually written or said.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 27 Jul. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 27 July 2002.