Where Did the Expression “Chump Change” Come From

E. Bondine asks:  Where  did the slang “chump change” originate?

Now You KnowThe phrase “chump change” first popped up in the mid-20th century, initially used primarily by African Americans to mean similar to what it does today, “a small or trivial amount of money”.  As to how those two words ended up being joined to form the phrase “chump change”, we have to go back a little further to look at the evolution of the word ‘chump’.

‘Chump’ showed up in English around the 18th century and probably was an agglutination of the two words ‘chunk’ and ‘lump’, as it originally meant a “lump of wood”.  Fast forward about a century and it started to take on a second meaning, “blockhead, fool, gullible person”.  Today ‘loser’ and ‘idiot’ has also been added to that.

From that, how ‘chump’  and ‘change’ became conjoined to mean “a small amount of money” starts to make sense, namely “an amount of money only a chump [fool] would think was a lot”, particularly in the beginning often referring to the low wages African Americans received for some job over what others, such as white people, might make for the same job: “I’m getting paid chump change for this”.  “Chump change” has since evolved to mean any trivial amount of money, whether in the context of wages or how much something was worth or not, and further whether the amount is actually trivial or just trivial to a certain person, such as in the case of a few thousand dollars being “chump change” to someone like Warren Buffet.

If you’re curious, the word ‘change’ original derives from the Latin ‘cambire’ meaning “to exchange or barter”, which in turn came from the Proto-Indo-European root ‘kamb-‘, meaning “to bend, crook”.  The jump between the two meanings is thought to come from “to bend” evolving into “to turn” or “to change”.  Around the 13th century, ‘cambire’ gave rise to the Old French ‘changier’, meaning “to alter”.  In the 17th century, this then took on the added meaning of amount owed back after payment, as in “$3.65 is your change.”

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