WHAT’S ‘CHIN MUSIC’?
The Etymology of Chin Music
Sweet Chin Music
Words evolve. Robust words find new meaning and purpose as they age. “Chin music” is one of those tenacious American phrases that has found its place in the wild west, the jazz age and the baseball stadium. It has also more recently found its way into rap music and pro wrestling. You can’t get much more American than that.
Mark Twain used the phrase in 1872 in Roughing It. Rough-and-tumble Scotty Briggs is talking to an erudite parson from the east about performing a funeral for Scotty’s good friend, bartender Buck Fanshaw:
“Are you the duck that runs the gospel-mill next door?”
“Am I the — pardon me, I believe I do not understand?”
With another sigh and a half-sob, Scotty rejoined: “Why you see we are in a bit of trouble, and the boys thought maybe you would give us a lift, if we’d tackle you — that is, if I’ve got the rights of it and you are the head clerk of the doxology-works next door.”
“I am the shepherd in charge of the flock whose fold is next door.”
“The spiritual adviser of the little company of believers whose sanctuary adjoins these premises.”
Scotty scratched his head, reflected a moment, and then said:
“You ruther hold over me, pard. I reckon I can’t call that hand. Ante and pass the buck.”
“How? I beg pardon. What did I understand you to say?”
“Well, you’ve ruther got the bulge on me. Or maybe we’ve both got the bulge, somehow. You don’t smoke me and I don’t smoke you. You see, one of the boys has passed in his checks and we want to give him a good send-off, and so the thing I’m on now is to roust out somebody to jerk a little chin-music for us and waltz him through handsome.”
In 1921, H.L. Mencken mentioned the phrase in his writings on The American Language:
“Many of these … new compounds … belong to the vocabulary of disparagement, e. g., bone-head, skunk, bug, jay, lobster, boob, mutt, gas (empty talk), geezer, piker, baggage-smasher, hash-slinger, clock-watcher, four-flusher, coffin-nail, chin-music, batty and one-horse. Here an essential character of the American shows itself: his tendency to combat the disagreeable with irony, to heap ridicule upon what he is suspicious of or doesn’t understand.”
Users of Chin Music
During the Roaring Twenties, flappers used the phrase to mean “gossip.” A novel called Chin Music explores that era.
And of course, still today, baseball announcers use the phrase to describe a high-and-tight pitch meant to send the batter a warning. This use of the term dates back to around World War II, we believe.
More recently, pro wrestler Shawn Michaels calls his finishing move “sweet chin music.” And Method Man has incorporated the phrase into a rap song — well sort of. It’s in the title, anyway. Seen “chin music” used in other ways? Let us know by sending a mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.