A reader writes, “In the newspaper I keep seeing sentences like ‘So-and-so showed his acting chops in portraying a demented killer,’ and, on sports radio, I keep hearing phrases like ‘props to so-and-so for his 10-day hitting streak.’ I thought ‘chops’ were what you got at the butcher and ‘props’ were objects in theatrical productions. Am I missing something?”
Well, yes. You omitted the similar word “daps” for ritualistic greetings, such as a fist-bump, handshake or palm slap. The singular of this term, “dap,” is believed to have originated among African American soldiers in Vietnam as an acronym for “dignity and pride.”
“Chops” has been used since the 1600s to refer to the mouth and jaw. We still use this term when we say that a dog is “licking his chops.”
“Chops” is an alteration of “chaps,” meaning the fleshy covering of the jaw. William Shakespeare licked his “chaps” most famously — and most gruesomely — when he wrote that Macbeth had “unseam’d” his enemy Macdonwald “from the nave to the chaps.” Talk about navel warfare!
Because brass instruments are played with the mouth, skilled players are said to have “good chops.” Based on my own experience as a third-rate trombonist in a high-school jazz ensemble, “good chops” was applied most often to trumpet players, who were also assumed to be the best kissers.
Because it takes years of practice for brass players to develop their embouchure (the proper position, strength and use of the lips, tongue and teeth), skilled hornists are said to have “earned their chops.”
Eventually, “chops” riffed from the musical world into general use, just as terms such as “upbeat,” “ad lib” and “riff” have. Thus, we say that an experienced executive has earned her “management chops,” a veteran performer has demonstrated his “acting chops” and a skilled butcher has perfected his pork “chops.”
“Props” is another musical term that has gone mainstream. It originated among rap musicians as a clipped form of “proper respects.”
Often used as a verbal greeting, “props” are sometimes accompanied by the gesture of tapping closed fists twice, once over and once under. In addition to aforementioned “daps,” other such physical salutations include “pounds” (lightly pounding fists) and, of course, “high fives.”
Aptly enough, “props” has now earned its own props as a general term for credit or respect, as in “props to so-and-so for her 10-day sewing spree.” Better make that “sew-and-sew.”
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His new book, “Mark My Words,” is available for $9.99 on Amazon.com. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.