Yesterday, one of our Metro columnists, Yvonne Abraham, wrote about the predictable reactions of the members of Massachusetts' congressional delegation to the debt ceiling deal:
But [John] Kerry, who is widely seen as a prospect for next Secretary of State, was very careful to avoid criticizing President Obama, who had some of his Massachusetts colleagues spitting chips for ceding way too much, too soon.
Case in point: professional chip-spitter Mike Capuano.
“At some point in his presidency, he is going to have to find some backbone,’’ said the Somerville Democrat, who has never come within a thousand miles of careful.
Yvonne is Australian, and someone wondered if spitting chips was some Australian idiom. I couldn't find anything in my usual sources, the OED and the American Heritage Dictionary, so I turned to Twitter, where I follow at least one known Australian (@obsidiantears83). She and another Australian (@staticsan)confirmed that spitting chips is something they say down there, used to describe an angry outburst when someone is very upset. But when I asked what kind of chips they'd be spitting -- wood chips or chips as in fish and chips -- they thought about it and realized that it was one of those things they'd never thought about.
A bit of Googling turned up two answers, one likely true though incomplete, and one that seems apocryphal but is much more amusing.
The first comes from the Australian National Dictionary, which appears to be something produced with the Oxford University Press, and which explains language quirks of Australia. It gives this, under the entry for chips:
In the phrase to spit chips:
a. To feel extreme thirst.
1901 Bulletin Reciter 108 While you’re spitting chips like thunder … And the streams of sweat near blind you. 1940 Bulletin (Sydney) 27 Mar. 17/1 But, though he's spittin’ chips hisself, he nacherally shrank From anythin’ to spoil that lovely thirst. 1946 A. marshall Tell us about Turkey, Jo. 142 I was spitting chips. God, I was dry!
b. To manifest extreme anger.
1947 J. morrison Sailors belong Ships 189 Old Mick Doyle's with them. He's spitting chips because they’re not using sea water. 1954 P. gladwin Long Beat Home 17 It's enough to make you spit chips when you think of Sydney—movies and vaudeville comedies and a decent musician once in two years. 1968 S. gore Holy Smoke 14 When he comes rushing up—spittin’ chips, he's so mad—young Dave only lets fly with one shot outa his ging, and the big bloke's stonkered.
Unfortunately, there is no etymology, and an article on the Australian Broadcasting Company website says how it went from thirst to anger is unclear.
But the explanation I liked best, even though, as a coworker pointed out, it is the very definition of an apocryphal story, was this, from a site called Aussie Slangs:
Spit Chips: Aussie slang meaning to be very angry. Said to have originated from when a Prime Minister was watching a soccer match on TV but the Australian team lost against England. He was eating chips, like all Aussies do in front of the TV, and vomited because he was so angry. The next day, newspapers reported of the PM "spitting chips" and applauded him for his patriotism. "Spitting chips" has since entered the Aussie Slang Dictionary.
Patriotic vomiting? This is my new favorite way of showing you love your country.