to chew the fat (or the rag)

 

Anecdotes (original and selected) of the turf, the chase, the ring, and the chase (1827), by Pierce Egan

Charley Tell-Tale
Keeping the P. P. Gents on the broad Grin with his laughable Anecdotes

illustration for Anecdotes (original and selected) of the Turf, the Chase, the Ring, and the Stage (1827), by Pierce Egan

 

 

 

MEANING

 

to chat in a leisurely and prolonged way

 

 

ORIGIN

 

In A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1984), Eric Partridge and Paul Beale explain the sense development. They write that to chew the fat, to chew the rag, occasionally to chew the grease, are of military origin, date back to around 1880 and meant to grumble and to resuscitate an old grievance. During World War One, there was a tendency to distinguish to chew the fat, meaning to sulk, be resentful, from to chew the rag, meaning to argue endlessly or without hope of a definite agreement. Moreover, in the 20th century, to chew the fat took in the Royal Navy the additional sense of to spin a yarn. And since around 1920, to chew the rag has predominantly signified to talk, to chat, to yarn, with no undertone of grumbling, sulking, or brooding.

In Life in the ranks of the British Army in India and on board a troopship (1885), J. Brunlees Patterson wrote:

grumbling or chewing the rag, or fat, as it is termed

and:

Some of the “knowing blokes,” prominent among whom will be the “grousers,” will, in all probability, be “arguing the point,” “chewing the rag, or fat,” giving “old buck.”

(A grouser is someone who grumbles or complains. The phrase old buck means bragging talk, insolence.)

And, in Slang and its Analogues Past and Present, published in 1891, John S. Farmer and W. E. Henley gave the following definition:

To chew the rag or fat, verbal phrase (military). — To grumble.

 

The phrase to chew the fat probably alludes to the action of chewing the fat of meat, which usually takes longer to masticate than lean meat does.

 

In the phrase to chew the rag, rag is (like the earlier red rag) slang for the tongue, and to chew implies using it at length. A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (1699), by “B. E. Gent.”, contains the following:

Red rag, a Tongue. ‘Your Red rag will never lie still’, ‘your Tongue will ne’re be quiet’.

The British journalist, sportswriter and writer on popular culture Pierce Egan (1772-1849) used the expression dish of red rag, meaning abuse, in Anecdotes (original and selected) of the Turf, the Chase, the Ring, and the Stage (1827):

Old fish-fag Poll was taken by surprise, on witnessing the entrance of the happy pair into St. Giles’s church, when she tipped the party such a dish of “red rag” as almost to create a riot in the street, if the beadles had not interfered, and made Poll quit the scene in a canter.

In Jack Flashman, from Captain Macheath; or, The highwayman of a century since! (1842), Pierce Egan used rag-sauce to mean advice:

Here the rag-sauce of a friend;
Ne’er trust to any fancy jade,
For all their chaff is only trade!

And rag-box denoted the mouth. The British novelist, short-story writer and poet Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) used this term in The Young British Soldier, from Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses (1892):

Now all you recruities what’s drafted to-day,
You shut up your rag-box an’ ’ark to my lay,
An’ I’ll sing you a soldier as far as I may.

 

To chew the rag is recorded in the USA in 1895. In Student Slang, the result published that year of a study conducted at the University of Michigan, in the city of Ann Arbor, William Clark Gore wrote:

chew the rag. [Said to be derived from the nursery practice of giving a fretful child a sweetened rag to chew.] To complain; to find fault. (Generally with the negative.)

It might therefore be an independent formation. In any case, the above-mentioned jaw-work is evoked in A Word Saving Poem, published in Ann Arbor Argus on 15th May 1896:

Some men chew their plug tobacco,
   ’’        ’’       ’’     the tag,
   ’’        ’’    never work their jaw
Except to chew the rag.

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