A few years back I wrote a column in which I noted that champ at the bit had been used in my daily paper. Twice in one day. In different articles, a few pages apart.
The first was a quote from a coach: “[O]ur guys are champing at the bit to get back on the court.” The second usage was in a headline. Another team was said to be “champing at the bit in the NCAAs.”
In each instance, the context was such that team members were understandably eager to get on with the competition at hand. They were, indeed, champing at the bit. Not chomping. Or chumping.
The word champ is more popularly known as the short form of the word champion. But it has historically also meant (literally) to make biting or gnashing movements and (figuratively) to show impatience. 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 that is put into a horse’s mouth. It’s connected to reins, bridle, etc., via which a rider controls the horse. Wikipedia notes that champ 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 image, it is suggested, the phrase came to mean “anxious to get started.” I mean, we really don’t know for sure what’s in the head of a given horse, do we?
Another article I stumbled into online notes that the idiom “is usually written chomping at the bit, and some people consider this spelling wrong. But chomp can also mean to bite or chew noisily (though chomped things are often eaten, while champed things are not), so chomp at the bit means roughly the same as champ at the bit.”
Alas, the purists would say. So much definitional evolution has roots in someone’s idea that one thing is roughly the same as another. Whether due to misusage, unfamiliarity with a term or the “roughly the same” doctrine, the two versions of this one idiom are both out there now, meaning exactly the same.
At a site called “Grammarist,” a writer posits that “chomp, which began as a variant of champ, is alive in English while the biting-related sense of champ is dead outside this idiom.” That, I believe, is a good point.
“So it’s no wonder,” the writer goes on, “that chomping at the bit is about 20 times as common as champing at the bit on the web. Champing at the bit can sound funny to people who aren’t familiar with the idiom or the obsolete sense of champ, while most English speakers can infer the meaning of chomping at the bit.”
At least one online dictionary notes that chump is a variant of champ in the same context. But I’ve found no reference to chump at the bit.
The “Grammar Girl” site’s author prefers the original phrase and suggests that people remember a horse named Champ – plus the saying “Champ always champs at the bit.”