Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Words of Hate: Chops

It's sometimes easy to understand why a phrase or saying becomes popular. Often it’s pure zeitgeist – like all those social media terms that sprung up in the wake of Facebook, Twitter and so on. Other times a phrase coined suddenly seems to just fit a certain phenomenon, like Britpop or chavs, giving something a suitable name that it lacked before.

Sometimes, however, it's just a mystery. I'm not sure where I first heard the phrase chops, as in: he hasn't earned his acting chops, or, he's got business chops, or not enough comedy chops. I think it may have been during a rant uttered by the Doctor Cox character in Scrubs. But wherever it was, I didn't like it then and I don't like it now.

It pops-up a lot in movie reviews, usually when trying vaguely to describe why an actor was a poor choice for a particular part, or why an actor was actually a good choice for a role, because of their past experience, or their particular talents, or something; it really isn’t very clear.

Apparently meat has nothing to do with chops.
The etymology of this bizarre saying is unclear. I had assumed that it was something to do with meat, that someone working in a household would be rewarded with the best cut of meat having reached a certain level of accomplishment amongst their peers.

Actually the phrase is likely to be related to music; chops being a slang term for mouth. To earn ones chops would be to develop the facial muscles in the mouth to become skilled at playing certain wind and brass instruments. However, this is just the most likely origin; there is no definitive known answer.

Wherever it comes from, it’s a very ugly and unspecific term. It seems to stand for a slightly uneasy blend of being experienced and somehow proving your worth, I think. Maybe.

In an effort to get to the bottom of this mystery, let’s look at some real examples from the web.

Being experienced definitely seems to be key to the phrase’s meaning. Let’s look at this quote from a BBC review of band Biffy Clyro playing at Glastonbury:

“No longer the young up-and-comers among the rock elite, the Kilmarnock trio have well and truly earned their chops and sit comfortable at the top of festival bills across the summer season.”

From that we would could assume that this Scottish band have worked hard and built themselves a career of high-charting recordings and touring that has taken them to the big leagues of popular music.

But what if, say, they hadn’t become a hit band capable of top 10 album successes? Say they’d never made it big, but had toured year after year, and played hundreds of gigs over their 15-plus years together as a band – would they then have earned their chops?

They wouldn’t have had the same success, but you couldn’t say they weren’t experienced. Maybe they’d had acclaimed albums, but never been a big chart success (the truth for many bands now revered), would they have earned their chops then? In this context, I think not.

Now let’s take this next sentence discussing The OWN Documentary Club, a feature on the Oprah Winfrey Network that aims to do for documentary films what her Book Club did for selected books:

“Along with Family Affair, OWN's Documentary Club will show Sons of Perdition, Life 2.0, One Lucky Elephant, 65 Red Roses, Most Valuable Players -- all have already earned their chops on the festival circuit and should be seen by wider audiences.”

Now I don’t think you can call a documentary experienced. What I think we’re bordering on here is a matter of reputation. Biffy Clyro and the following documentaries have built-up a reputation doing what it is they do. But I think more than that, I think we’re talking about buzz or presence, or maybe even star quality.

Here’s another example – this time from Empire Online, from their review of recent hit movie, The Debt:

“If there’s a weak link among the acting ensemble it’s (Sam) Worthington — while he can handle David’s burning desire for duty, his accent is often atrocious, and he doesn’t quite have the chops to stand alongside the others.”

Though having appeared in a number of films, Worthington is still, I would say, an actor still to really establish himself as a major star. And in a film which also stars weighty talents like Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds, and 8-films-in-a-year, awarding-winning, up-and-comer Jessica Chastain, it’s easy to see how Worthington could seem swamped in serious heavy-weight talents.

Sam Worthington - clearly a man
without chops
But is it a matter of experience? Stars can be made overnight with the right attention-getting role. Worthington’s been in films since 2000, and won some awards too – including a nomination from Empire for Best Actor in 2009. Maybe he just wasn’t right for the part, or doesn’t have the presence amongst the heavyweights. Or is it the experience thing after all?

Anyway, so far we could perhaps assume that earned their chops refers to someone, or something, who/that has acquired the necessary experience, and has established a certain reputation and presence, that proves they/it is worthy of performing a certain task, or deserves your attention.

Well that’s clear isn’t it? Or can we make it even more complicated? We’ve already had one example from Empire Online - to my mind by far the worst chops offender - so let’s have some more examples.

…Ryan Gosling, showing sly comedy chops and about 54 abdominal muscles…

Doesn’t really fit in with the theory does it? This seems to suggest chops refers to skills, talents, or maybe credentials.

Pitt's perfect features and often underestimated acting chops work so well when contrasted with the depravity of Seven…

So in this context it’s definitely just talents/skills. After all, we don’t need to be told that Brad Pitt has got star presence, a huge reputation or loads of acting experience (more than 20 years on screen). So chops doesn’t have to refer to any of those things after all.

Happily, the movie also has cinematic chops.

You what now? So in this case, it’s just credentials, nothing to do with skills, reputation, or experience – because a film can’t have any of those things, it’s not a person or a brand in itself. And can you have cinematic presence? Well, probably in film criticism I suppose.

So what does earned their chops and all its various iterations mean? A mixture of experience, presence, credentials, skills, star quality and talent, delete as appropriate?

It really doesn’t make any sense when you look at it closely. I can appreciate sometimes that a newly popular word or phrase can come into being, and that it can sometimes be annoying, but if it fills a gap that no other word or phrase fills, or captures a certain sound or feeling better than the pre-existing  terms, then, generally it's a good thing and I'm for it. But just what is this term bringing to world of language? What purpose does it fulfill?

Personally, I think it’s just lazy. A term that allows you to get out of explaining that something is either right or something is either wrong; something is in the right place, or something is in the wrong place; that something can do something or it can’t.

Even if there were a reasonable good application of this slippery term, it should still never be used. Because you’ll never be able to stop people thinking of pork and cheeks.

So if you’re ever tempted to use this damn awful term, why not just stop, sit back, and think: what it is you actually mean? And then, why not write that instead?


Anonymous said...

I agree for the most part, but I was hoping that it would be an article about the Euros Childs album. Nice rant though!

Seem to recall the use of the word chops meaning all those things being somewhat related to facial hair and the army - maybe only officers being allowed to wear sideburns, hence if you had become an officer you had 'earnt your chops'. Think I might have seen it on Sharpe or something.

One thing: Entomology is the study of insects, Etymology is the study of words!

And finally, something to make you hate chops, this is the first result when you type chops into Google: http://lovegodsway.org/C.H.O.P.S. Awful, I'm sure you'd agree.

Dave Paul Nixon said...

Etymology - d'oh. It sounded right in my mind. One of these days I'm gonna get through a whole long post without embarrassing myself.

The sideburns things could be true. When I looked at ETYMOLOGY discussion groups most seemed to relate it to music, but it seems as valid explanation as any. There's seems to be no consensus.

http://lovegodsway.org/C.H.O.P.S. - what a hideous monstrosity!

Anonymous said...

Or that could be utter twaddle. I'm not sure.

Anonymous said...

Another high-profile use of the word...


Dave Paul Nixon said...

I saw it. That's an associate editor writing that kind of rubbish - how tragically depressing.

Artistic chops - what utter nonsense!