Okay, so I held the fort for “hold the fort” last week. Victory. This past weekend, my sweetheart said, as she often does, she was “chomping at the bit” to do something. And as I always do, though not always out loud, I muttered, “champing.” “What?” she asked. “Champing at the bit. That’s the correct expression.” She gave me the look, which she often does at times like these.
See, a few years ago I was taking an online survey about my habits of mind, and, the preceding paragraph notwithstanding (and the word “notwithstanding” notwithstanding), because I’m really not a fussbudget, I’m not a grammar and usage Nazi, I answered to indicate that language meant relatively little to me, at least in terms of correctness. Jean Marie scoffed. I think she actually laughed out loud. And now, years later, whenever I do something like pointing out “champing” vs. “chomping,” she gets to say, “but language means nothing to you.” And it comes with a look.
We laugh about this. I know when I’m properly busted. But I also hold onto my beliefs about the value of old idioms. They often come from a time long gone, when objects, tools, whatever, which were common then have now ceased to exist. Sometimes that renders the idiom obsolete, silly. “Give you a ring” is teetering on the brink, because most phones don’t ring anymore (although mine does) and anyone younger than about 47 seems to text, email or message in some other fashion. And so it goes. But for whatever reason, I feel obliged, maybe even obligated as a former teacher, to hold the line (not the fort this time) on certain expressions that are lovely in their very strangeness. “Champing at the bit” is one such expression.
At Jean Marie’s suggestion, I “looked up” (Aaugh! Googled!) the phrase. To my dismay, I learned that not only did the now-familiar chomp begin as a variant of champ, it has, in all usage except the above, utterly obliterated it. The Grammarist website notes,
Champing at the bit can sound funny to people who aren’t familiar with the idiom or the obsolete sense of champ, while most English speakers can infer the meaning of chomping at the bit.
So I may have to surrender this time. Is it worth holding the fort (sorry, couldn’t resist) against such overwhelming odds? Maybe not. The bit remains, of course, and I have just discovered a whole page showing dozens of different shapes and designs. The language there is rich: “A kimberwicke acts like a mild curb bit.” That’s something.
Still, I love the image and the sound that the unfamiliar phrase creates: champing at the bit— a horse, mouthing the hard metal device, not in discomfort, but in eagerness to get started, to run off at a gallop. That’s how metaphor works, after all. Two things compared that are unlike, but similar enough to make the comparison sensible. It’s the management of strangeness that makes the language bloom in our minds. Chomping is just a little too familiar for me to feel the metal between my teeth, and chew on it, ready to head off down the road.