Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

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Champ at the bit or chomp at the bit? Which is correct?

7 Comments

4-minute read

Summary

  • Chomp at the bit appears more often in most modern written sources than champ…;
  • Dictionaries make no comment about chomp’s correctness;
  • A small survey suggests that most people would edit chomp to champ;
  • I comment on it in my Fowler, but only one other usage guide does;
  • Insisting that champ is the only correct form seems to be a ‘thing’.

On one of my posts a reader commented how much it annoyed them when people said chomp at the bit rather than champ at the bit and suggested I should blog about it. So here goes.

To quote verbatim, my correspondent (there must, surely, be a more up-to-date word for someone who comments on a blog post) wrote: ‘I hear a lot of people who say “chomping at the bit” rather than “champing at the bit” which whether or not it has come into common use is wrong and smacks of a poor education and a poor vocabulary.’

That raises two obvious major questions.

Q1: Has chomp … in fact come into common use?

In other words, how common is it vs champ?

(And, might there be ‘regional’ variation?)

Q2: Who decides whether it is ‘wrong’? What do they say?

It also raised in my mind…

Q3: What do editors and others who care, think?

And, of course,

Q4: What do these words mean, and what is the history of and relation between the two forms – and any others, such as chafing.

I’ll answer the first three each in two parts, a short answer and then a longer one for anyone who wants more information. For the sake of (relative) brevity in this post, Q4 requires a separate post.

Q1: Has chomp come into common use?

Short answer:

Yes. And in most varieties of English it is more often used than champ.

Longer answer:

It depends where in the English-speaking world you’re talking about, and also what kind of writing.

I consulted six sets of data: The Oxford English Corpus February 2014, Oxford Monitor Corpus April 2018, the News on the Web (NOW) corpus, the Global Corpus of Web-based English (GloWbE), the Corpus of Historical American (COHA) and the Hansard corpus.

According to the Oxford English Corpus data consulted, while in February 2014 chomp.* at the bit was more frequent than champ.*, (414:310) the picture varied by region.

(The .* means all forms of the verb, although 88 per cent are continuous tenses in any case, i.e. with the form champing/chomping.)

In BrE chomp.* was less frequent (97:121) but in U.S. English the opposite was true (201/102). Canadian usage was in line with U.S., while Australian was closer to British (chomp.* 15: champ.* 25).

However, by the time of the April 2018 Monitor Corpus, things had changed for BrE: chomp.* was now commoner (224:174). Whether this is an indication of increasing U.S. influence it is impossible to say. For the U.S., the difference between the two forms had increased (876: 336), but for Australia the difference had stayed almost exactly the same in percentage terms (chomp.* 40: champ.* 68). Overall, the ratio was 2,245:1,143.

Just to confuse matters, there is another idiom, which is “get the bit between one’s teeth”, as this cartoon illustrates. That’s when the horse moves the bit away from where it normally sits and takes control. That’s why Trump’s “riders” are pulling so hard: he’s outa control.

The three other data sources consulted are from the Brigham Young University corpora. The Global Corpus of Web-based English (GloWbE), which covers 20 different country varieties of English, showed chomp.* to be more than twice as frequent (377:152) and to be more frequent in every country except Australia. But even there, the gap had narrowed (chomp 24: champ 32).

The NOW corpus showed chomp.* to be about 57 per cent or so commoner than champ, that is, by a smaller margin than the GloWbE data (1415:901). My hunch is that because this material is written by journalists of various kinds, who are more likely to have an idea of what is considered to be correct, they are more likely to ‘correct’ themselves, in contrast to the GloWbE writers, who can be anyone anywhere.

Then, to see what a historical corpus showed, I looked at COHA, which is the largest such corpus available. It showed chomp.* at six occurrences, and first appearing as late as the 1980s, and champ.* at 20 and first appearing in 1880.

Finally, the Hansard corpus, i.e. a corpus of British parliamentary proceedings 1802–2005, produces an intriguing result. A search for verbs preceding the string at the bit produces 49 examples of champ from the 1930s onwards, seven of chafing, and one each of straining and pulling but absolutely none of chomp. Does this mean that the honourable members to a person believe it is the correct and only version? Or could it be that the transcribers have corrected what was said?

Q2: Who decides whether it is ‘wrong’? What do they say?

Short answer:

Well, each of us can (and often does in practice) decide if we think a particular use of a word, phrase, etc., is wrong, but it is generally dictionaries and usage guides that are taken as objective judges of such matters.

The OED, the Oxford Online Dictionary, Collins and Merriam-Webster make no comment about the correctness or otherwise of chomp.

Longer answer:

It is not listed in either the Cambridge Guide to English Usage or the Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage. I added it to my edition of Fowler and noted there that chomp is more frequent than champ in the corpus I consulted at the time and sententiously ended the note with ‘some purists will see it as an egregious mistake, even though it is recorded in dictionaries’.

It is also mentioned in Paul Brians’ Common Errors in English Usage.

The dictionaries consulted deal with it as follows:

  • Oxford Dictionary Online: just gives the phrase chomp at the bit under chomp.
  • OED: In a 2007 draft addition, notes ‘Chiefly  Amer. to chomp at the bit: = to champ at the bit’. In other words, it says it is the equivalent of champ, but refrains from judgement on the phrase itself. However, the whole (1972?) entry for chomp is headed by the rubric formerly dialect and U.S., which could be construed as relegating U.S. English to the status of a dialect (!), though I’m quite sure this is not what the lexicographers meant.
  • Collins: the dictionary for learners, Cobuild, lists chomp at the bit without comment.
  • However, the dictionary for mother-tongue speakers for British English does not list it under chomp, but the dictionary for U.S. English does.
  • Merriam-Webster Unabridged shows both versions without comment.
  • However, the online version cross-refers the relevant meaning of chomp to the entry for the verb champ while specifying that chomp in that meaning is usually in the phrase chomping at the bit. This could either be an example of lexicographers being economical, or a subtle implication that champ is preferable.

Q3: What do editors, and others who care and are presumably vocabulary-rich, think?

Who knows?

A simple way would be to ask them whether they would leave it or emend it when editing.

I tried that.

In a tiny survey on Twitter, 9 out of 12 people said they would change it.

17% I’m not U.S. & wld leave

42% I’m not U.S. & wld change

08% I’m U.S. & wld leave it

33% I’m U.S. & wld change it

There is also the poll at the head of the blog. Please take part.

I’ll blog separately about the history and meaning of the two words.

Merry Christmas, btw!

 

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

7 thoughts on “Champ at the bit or chomp at the bit? Which is correct?

  1. Jeremy,

    I really enjoy your articles. I gotta say, though, I don’t know how “Champ” got any legs on this. Chomping is biting, chewing. Horses have bits in their mouth as part of the bridle. When they are leaning forward they are biting at that bit. How in the heck does “Champ” even fit in a sentence or phrase like that? 🙂

    Wes

    On Wed, Dec 19, 2018 at 9:17 AM Jeremy Butterfield Editorial wrote:

    > Jeremy Butterfield posted: “4-minute read Summary Chomp at the bit appears > more often in most modern written sources than champ…; Dictionaries make no > comment about chomp’s correctness; A small survey suggests that most people > would edit chomp to champ; I comment on” > Respond to this post by replying above this line > New post on *Jeremy Butterfield Editorial* > Champ > at the bit or chomp at the bit? Which is correct? > by > Jeremy Butterfield > > 4-minute read > > View Poll > Summary > > – *Chomp* *at the bit* appears more often in most modern written > sources than *champ…*; > – Dictionaries make no comment about *chomp’s *correctness; > – A small survey suggests that most people would edit *chomp* to > *champ*; > – I comment on it in my Fowler > , > but only one other usage guide does; > – Insisting that *champ* is the only correct form seems to be a > ‘thing’. > > —————————— > > > > On one of my posts a reader commented how much it annoyed them when people > said *chomp at the bit *rather than *champ at the bit* and suggested I > should blog about it. So here goes. > > To quote verbatim > , my > correspondent (there must, surely, be a more up-to-date word for someone > who comments

    Like

    • Thanks for reading the post. I’ll deal with the history of the two words in the next blog.

      Like

    • Because a bit is placed in the part of a horse’s mouth where there is a void in teeth, a horse does not “chomp” on it, meaning that it does not bite the bit. When a horse gets nervous, it grinds its teeth. To champ at the bit, literally, a horse grinds its teeth on the bit. This idiom arose from horse racing where horses were seen nervously grinding their teeth in anticipation of the race. Horses may “chomp” at the bit out of annoyance, but they champ at the bit out of anticipation. It is this sense of anticipation that the idiom “champing at the bit” is conveying.

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  2. I don’t think your comment on “getting the bit between one’s teeth” is quite right. My understanding (as a former horse owner) is that it refers to the horse’s being out of control because it has got the bit literally gripped in its teeth, rather than on the sensitive bare gum spaces. I don’t know whether this literally happens, but the Trump illustration accurately represents the idiom as I’ve always known it.

    Like

    • Thanks for reading the blog, Jan. It’s always useful to get feedback, especially when it is presented diplomatically. I think you are right. Although “to take the bit between one’s teeth” and similar are positive when applied to people, the root meaning, which I hadn’t really thought about, is taking control and being independent. And being independent is what a horse is doing, I suppose, if the bit moves to between its teeth, where it isn’t meant to be, and against the wishes of the rider. I will amend my comment accordingly. Thank you.

      Like

  3. Horses chomp carrots. They champ at their bits as they have no teeth where the bit straddles the jaw to chomp on it.

    Like

    • Thanks for reading and for your comment. I am sure that from an equine point of view your comment is perfectly correct. However, most language users do not, it seems, agree with your analysis. Please see my next blog on the topic, coming soon.

      Like

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