Chew the fat is a colloquial phrase meaning “to talk or discuss informally, or to talk at length on a variety of subjects.” The phrase has been in use since the early 19th century. There is some debate as to the origin of the term. While some etymologists argue that it is a variation of the older phrase, to chew the rag, and others quibble about the varieties of meats or blubbers that the term’s original users could have been chewing, my favorite origin story comes from Cheapside, London.
To chew the fat could be an addition to the English language from the whimsical and free-spirited Cockney rhyming slang.
The user of Cockney rhyming slang replaces a word with its rhyme or with a phrase in which the last word rhymes with the original. To chew the fat comes from the more mundane “to have a chat.” Further muddling understanding is the fact that, often, the word that rhymes with the intended one is omitted and another portion of the phrase is used. Many examples of this can be found in rhyming slang terms for body parts: the word “feet” becomes “plates of meat” and shortens to simply “plates;” “legs” becomes “Scotch eggs” and, later, just “Scotches;” and “eyes” becomes “mince pies” or “minces.”
Cockney rhyming slang developed in the East End of London and in the suburbs around central London. It was first systematically recorded in 1859 in Ducange Anglicus’s The Vulgar Tongue: A Glossary of Slang, Cant, and Flash Phrases, used in London from 1839 to 1859. Several terms that are still used in and around London could already be found in this text, among them “apples and pears” to mean “stairs,” “Barnet-Fair” to mean “hair,” and “butcher’s hook” to mean “look.” The latter is frequently shortened to “butcher’s,” so that one is told to “take a butcher’s” at something of interest.
Despite recent research which suggests that the Cockney accent may no longer exist in London within 30 years, Cockney rhyming slang shows no sign of going out of use or losing popularity. Many British websites offer tutorials, translators, and even private lessons in the art of rhyming slang. In addition, internationally popular films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, and Ocean’s Eleven help add to the appeal of this linguistic game.
Illustration by Chew The Fat!