to chop and change


photograph of William Makepeace Thackeray by Jesse Harrison Whitehurst

photograph of William Makepeace Thackeray by Jesse Harrison Whitehurst






to change one’s opinions or behaviour repeatedly and abruptly





In this phrase, to chop originally meant to barter, and to change meant to make an exchange with. In other words, this was an alliterative repetitive expression, the two verbs having roughly the same meaning. In The Treasurie of the French Tong (1580), Claudius Hollyband (floruit 1573-83) wrote:

Eschanger, to exchange, to chop, to scorse [= to barter].

To chop seems to be a variant of the obsolete verb to chap, to bargain, trade, from the Old English verb céapian, related to the Old English noun céap, bargaining, trade, which is the origin of cheap and chapman (read The ‘cheap’ in Cheapside).

To chop in this sense first appeared in chop-church, attested in 1391 and thus defined by White Kennett in 1816:

Chop-churches. Those secular priests who drove a trade, or made an advantage by exchanging of their benefices, against whom some constitutions were expressly made to restrain that mercenary practise.

(from A Glossary to explain the original, the acceptation, and obsoleteness of words and phrases; and to shew the rise, practise, and alteration of customs, laws, and manners)

The verb to chop has also been used figuratively, especially in the phrase to chop logic, meaning to exchange arguments, to bandy logic. In late use, probably under the influence of the homonymous verb to chop, this expression has been understood as meaning to ‘mince’, to ‘split hairs’, to ‘hash up’. A Treatise contayning a playne and perfect Description of Irelande, by Richard Stanyhurst (1547-1618), in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1577), contains:

Whereas you charge me with malpertnesse, in that I presume to chop Logike with you beyng Gouernor, by answering your snappish quid, with a knappish quo, I would wishe you to vnderstand, now, that you put me in mind of the distinction, that I as a subiect honour your royall authoritie, but as a noble man I despise your dunghill gentilitie.


The first recorded use of to chop and change, meaning to barter and exchange, is in A Morality of Wisdom, who is Christ, a mystery play written around 1485:

And I vse Iorourry [= jurory, defamation],
Enbrace questes of periury,
choppe and chaunge with symonye,
& take large yiftes [= gifts].

William Tyndale (circa 1494-1536) used the expression in his translation (1526) of Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians (2:17):

For we are not as many are which choppe and chaunge with the worde of God: but even oute of purenes and by the power of God and in the sight of God so speake we in Christ.

In the King James Version (1611), this verse is:

For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ.


Very early, because the sense of to chop became indistinct, the meaning of the phrase passed from to barter to to change, alter. In the Geneva Bible (1560), the First Epistle of Peter, 2:2,

As newborn babes desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby

is thus commented:

In this their infancy and new coming to Christ he willeth them to take heed lest for the pure milk, which is the first beginnings of learning the sincere word, they be not deceived by them which chop and change it, and give poison instead thereof.

As a consequence, the meaning of change passed over into to chop alone. Probably under the influence of the homonymous verb in the sense of to strike, to chop was applied to sudden movements, especially, as a nautical term, of the wind. For example, in A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657), the business agent and natural science writer Richard Ligon (circa 1585-1662) wrote:

It was the time of Tornado, when the windes chop about into the South.

In The Four Georges, published by The Living Age of August 1860, the British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63) used the verb figuratively. About George I’s accession to the British throne, he wrote:

If Swift had not been committed to the statesmen of the losing side, what a fine satirical picture we might have had of that general ‘sauve qui peut’ amongst the Tory party! How mum the Tories became; how the House of Lords and House of Commons chopped round; and how decorously the majorities welcomed King George!

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