A controversy is raging about the expression “champing at the bit” – or is it “chomping at the bit”? The argument even showed up on a recent episode of the TV show Billions.
I am going to weigh in on this – and it’s going to go off in a direction you’re not expecting. I hope you’ll hang in.
I did what scholars do. I looked up both chomping and champing at the bit in the Oxford English Dictionary. (Trust me – it’s the ultimate authority on any historical question about English.)
Turns out “chomp upon the bit” was first recorded in 1645. “Champ the bit” isn’t recorded until more than a century later, in 1797.
That doesn’t mean that champing (or chomping) is the preferred version in 2019. But it does take the wind out of the sails of anyone who wants to claim that champing is the more authentic choice.
Now we’re going to take a detour. According to the OED, the first recorded usage of “chomp upon the bit” was in an obscure book called Epistolae Ho-elianae by an equally obscure Welsh-English writer named James Howell (1594-1666).
I am – ahem – one of the living authorities on James Howell. I am not making this up.
In 1972 I published “James Howell and the Stock Welshman” in the Anglo-Welsh Review. It’s a discussion of a forgotten article by Howell that I discovered when I was working on my master’s degree.
Years later I came across a Celtic bibliography and nervously looked up my name. Yes! There was my article!
Anybody who thinks that scholarship is dull should have been there when I discovered Howell’s long-forgotten article in the Rare Book Room at the New York Public Library. The quest to learn more about Howell eventually took me to the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth and the reading room at the British Museum – the same room that was so important to Bernard Shaw’s self-education project. Perhaps I sat in the same chair that he did.
Trust me – it’s been fun!