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VOL. 36 | NO. 49 | Friday, December 07, 2012

Impatient champs champ, not chomp, at the bit

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In a recent newspaper article, a basketball coach is quoted: “I think our guys are champing at the bit to get back on the court.”

The context was aptly suggested by the lead: “It’s been a long break between games....” The team hasn’t played in nine days. They’re eager to get back into competition. They are champing at the bit. Congrats, coach! Your usage of the phrase is perfect!

The same phrase appeared a second time in today’s sports section. The headline “UA champing at bit in NCAAs” heralds an article about the upcoming cross-country championships in Louisville, Ky. There’s no mention of there having been a long time between meets. There’s no suggestion the UA team was, or should be, especially eager to get the competition started. Thumbs down, Mr. Headline Writer! Your usage is flawed.

I’ve a theory I dare not explore. It’s that the headline writer saw the basketball coach’s quote and was consciously or unconsciously led to use the same phrase in his headline. The hook, again, seems to be in the lead: “It’s more than five months before the Kentucky Derby, but Louisville, Ky., will be the site of some major races Saturday.”

Champ literally means to make biting or gnashing movements. Figuratively, it means to show impatience. See any dictionary. In my 1979 Webster’s New Collegiate, the latter definition includes the parenthetical “usually used in the phrase champing at the bit.”

A bit is a rod put into a horse’s mouth. It’s connected to reins, bridle, etc., through which a rider controls the horse. A Wikipedia article notes that “champing at the bit” refers to a horse’s tendency, when impatient or nervous and being restrained by its rider, to chew on the bit, toss its head and paw the ground. From this visual, it is suggested, the phrase came to mean “anxious to get started.”

For what it’s worth, the verb chomp means merely to chew or bite on something; no sense of impatience or eagerness is implicit in chomp. Nonetheless, apparently via what experts call the echoic effect, a lot of people say “chomping at the bit.” And, for reasons that escape me, “chafing at the bit” is also recognized for its usage (or misusage) in this context.

The sports writer sticks with the horse racing theme in his article, but never suggests eagerness or impatience. The men’s coach is quoted: “There are ... similarities between a horse race and this race ... It’s like pushing those horses into the [starting gate]. Some walk in cool as a cucumber and others go in kicking ... [Y]ou’ve got those kind of guys on our team, too. You’ve got every type of runner in this race, from milers to 10K guys ... Everybody’s vulnerable ...”

The women’s coach is quoted: “We’re not going in with a lot of experience. I hope we stay nice and relaxed ....” Neither coach’s remarks betray a sense of urgency or eagerness about getting the meet started or getting their runners back to the track after a layoff. The horse racing theme is insufficient per se to say that the UA team is champing at the bit.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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