Remember, kids: If it dies, it fries.
Dear Word Detective: One of the favorite dishes in my native England is fish and chips (more likely to be called “fish and French fries” in your neck of the woods, as “chips,” I understand, are what we call “crisps”). Nonetheless, there are many varieties of “chips” around these days, several of which are no doubt sitting in this computer as I write, doing the things chips do. It occurred to me that “chip” was a rather strange word, but my dictionary was of little help. Where did the word “chip” come from in the mists of eons past? — David, Ripon, England.
Interestingly, and somewhat bafflingly, your “fish and chips” are called “fish and chips” here in the US too. I say “bafflingly” because if you were to ask for “chips” in a US restaurant, you would probably be handed a small bag of potato chips (or “crisps,” as you call them), not French fries. It makes one wonder what Americans think the “chips” in “fish and chips” means. “Giant chips of fish”? “Crisps” as a name for potato chips is unknown over here, although an odd Frankenchip named Pringles (after a street in Cincinnati, Ohio) was forced to stop calling itself a “potato chip” back in the 1970s because it contains less than 42% potatoes. Now Pringles, which comes in a can, calls itself a “crisp.”
Things, as William Butler Yeats once observed, fall apart, most often because someone has hit them with something, which brings us to the basic meaning of “chip.” The history of the word is maddeningly vague and uncertain. The earliest written instance of the noun “chip” found so far in English is in the early 14th century, but a much earlier existence in the form “cipp” is strongly implied by the Old English verb form “cippian” (to cut). In any case, the earliest uses of “chip” as a noun were to mean a small piece of wood or stone created by breaking or cutting, as in wood chips.
Soon, of course, “chip” was being applied to small pieces taken from a larger hunk of just about anything. The first known mention of “chips” in the sacred “fried slice of potato” sense can be laid at the door of none other than Charles Dickens, in his “A Tale of Two Cities” in 1859 (“Husky chips of potatoes, fried with some reluctant drops of oil”). “Chip” was also used to mean the tokens of value (perhaps originally actual chips of wood) in games such as poker, soon spawning a range of idioms such as “when the chips are down” (a moment of crisis or testing, as when all bets have been placed) and “to cash in one’s chips” (to quit or die).
“Chip” was also used to mean something derived from a larger thing or person, as in “chip off the old block,” and even came to mean the space or mark left by the loss of a chip of something, as in a “chip” in a table.
“Chip” in the sense of “computer processor” is probably the most recent distinct use of the word, dating back to the early 1960s when integrated circuits first came into use. The tiny circuit boards must have reminded nearly everyone of “chips” of something, because the usage was almost immediately universally adopted (“The size of the wafers varies, but it is not uncommon for one about the size of a penny to carry several hundred tiny squares known as ‘chips,’ each containing anything from about 20 to perhaps 600 components,” 1967). The latest verb form of “chip,” by the way, is “to chip” meaning the subcutaneous insertion of an electronic “chip” into an animal (or person) to aid in tracking and identification.