You can see it, can’t you? There’s the racehorse in the starting gate. He’s hoofing the ground. He’s whinnying. He’s chomping on his bit impatiently waiting for the starting gun to fire…
But the problem is, “chomping at the bit” isn’t the correct expression. The second problem is that “champing” and “chomping” are so incredibly close, this distinction is confusing in itself.
“Champing at the bit” means to chew anxiously at the bit, or the mouthpiece. The word “champing” has nothing to do with the fact that this may or may not be a champ (as in “champion”) racehorse. “Champing” is an old word that’s been around since the 14th century. The problem for this expression is that “champing” is pretty much non-existent in contemporary English—outside of this phrase, of course. Oh, and “champing” and “chomping” stem from the same Middle English word chammen, which became champen.
“Champing at the bit,” when used figuratively rather than literally—forget the actual horses—means to be eager to start or to be anxious to get moving.
“Chomping” also deals with biting down, but it usually has to do with eating. The horses aren’t stress-eating their bits. “Champing” at a bit is more akin to gnashing teeth.
This mistake is so common that some call it a normalized usage. You might be able to get away with “chomping” when you’re speaking or in casual use; however, if you’re going to be using this expression in your communications—whether in an email or a book manuscript—it’s always best to use the correct form to avoid looking ignorant.
Ignorance about the sport of kings never is a good thing.
Admittedly, the correct form of this expression might be one of the few details I know about horse-racing, but I’m calling it a win. Maybe not something for the winner’s circle, but a victory nonetheless.
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