Chip off the Old Block

Here is a nice expression, that may surprise you with just how old it is. Amazingly, it dates back to 1621 at least, probably even earlier. Our earliest known citation is from the Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Sanderson, who used it in his Sermons in the form “a chip of the same block”.

John Milton wrote it a short while afterwards, in 1642, as “a chip of the old block”. As you can see, this form is just one preposition removed from the form generally in use today. It’s thought that this slight shift took place some time during the 19th century.

There is some dispute as to whether the association is with a block of wood and therefore with carpentry, or with a block of stone and stone-working, masonry, etc.

Either way, it makes no difference to the meaning of the expression and the way in which it is used – that a child is very much like the parent.

An alternative way to express this idea in English is to say “the apple does not fall far from the tree”. It seems that this is a popular image in other countries too. The expression in Polish niedaleko pada jabłko od jabłoni means exactly the same thing, as does the Slovenian jabolko ne pade daleč od drevesa. This might not seem surprising, considering that these two languages are both Slavic, and several similarities can be noted in the vocabulary used for the expression itself.

But then the German expression Der Apfel fällt nicht weit vom Stamm also translates as “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”. Swedish is exactly the same, with Äpplet faller inte långt från trädet. And then there is only a slight difference in Greek, where one might say Το μήλο κάτω από τη μηλιά πέφτει (to milo kato apo ti milia peftei), which means “the apple falls under the apple tree”. Even Finnish, from a different language family, has ei omena kauas puusta putoa – again, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”. Given the prevalence of apple-trees and the ubiquitous nature of the fruit, it’s hardly surprising that the same image is used in so many different languages.

However, this is where we shall note an intriguing little twist in Swedish. In addition to the expression mentioned above, another is used, with just a slight difference; Äpplet faller inte långt från päronträdet, this time, it means “the apple doesn’t fall far from the pear-tree” – a humorous version of the idiom, perhaps started as a nod to how contrary life can be.

This brings me on now to some idioms with different literal meanings. We will start with Spanish, as their expression makes me laugh! El hijo de la gato, ratones mata, which translates as “the cat’s son kills mice”. This puts me in mind of that other phrase in English; “blood will tell”. Spanish has another popular expression too, de tal palo tal astilla, which means “like stick, like splinter”. Not too dissimilar from the chip and the block, I would say.

Welsh gives us two options; asglodyn o hen gyff, which means “chip from the old block”, the same as the English version, or the rather lovely phrase mae’n gyw o frîd – “they are a chick from the nest”.

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One thought on “Chip off the Old Block

  1. In Milton’s day, of and off weren’t yet separated; the former was just the weakly stressed form of the latter. Similarly with through and thorough, which is why the former is the only function word starting with an unvoiced th.

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