Each week, we take a look at a common confusions and ambiguities in the English language (that gives us about a century’s worth of material!) – making things easier through the power of friendly conversation… This week, which word is correct?
Q: I couldn’t wait to ask you a question today. Can you tell I was literally chomping at the bit?
A: Well no we can’t tell that. Your use of literally implies you removed all your middle teeth (like a horse) and inserted a metal bit in its place. That sounds very painful, and quite frankly, unnecessary. All that aside, don’t you mean you were ‘champing’?
Q: Ummm, I thought ‘champ’ was what you called your six-year-old who tried his best in the game despite being generally terrible, and not anything to do with this phrase. Right?
A: The correct ‘purist’ usage should actually be “champing at the bit” – with ‘champing’ meaning to bite or chew noisily and the ‘bit’ that metal thing in a horse’s mouth we spoke about earlier. When impatient or eager, horses would chew on the bit – hence the phrase and its associated meaning.
Q: So is ‘chomping’ wrong then?
A: You’ll be pleased and perplexed (simultaneously) to learn that on the web ‘chomping at the bit’ is about 20 times more common than the original ‘champing’! This is probably because ‘chomp’ means a similar thing (although it suggests the horse ‘eats’ the bit, which is wrong). More importantly, it’s because ‘champ’ is no longer used in modern English (outside of the idiom in question), whereas ‘chomp’ is.
Q: But even despite all that, I should really use “champing at the bit”?
A: Yes. Literally.
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