Chalk It Up

By Maeve Maddox

Having read the post about the expression chock-full, a reader asks,

Could you also clarify and explain the origins of “chalk it up.” I’ve also seen “chock it up” which I assume is an error.  I’ve also heard “chop it up” in the same context.

The expression “chalk it up” is one of several English idioms that contain the word chalk.

The noun chalk, denoting “an opaque white soft earthy limestone,” has been in the language since the 10th century. The verb arose from the uses to which chalk can be put, especially for writing, drawing, and marking on a variety of surfaces, from walls to grassy fields.

In the past, as now, sports enthusiasts used chalk to mark the field of play and to keep score. Tavern keepers kept track of customers’ accounts by writing amounts owed on the wall or on a slate. Scores for tavern games were also “chalked up” by the players.

Other business owners kept track of accounts in the same way. Amounts owed were “chalked up.” When a bill was paid, the amount owed was “chalked off.”

Then as now, people sometimes depended upon credit to get by. One of the OED citations given for chalk in the sense of credit is from a song sung by apprentices: “When we have no mony [sic], We shall find chalk.” Today they might sing, “When we have no money, We shall find plastic.”

Here are a few examples of the use of chalk expressions on the Web:

Much of his elementary school mischief can be chalked up to boyish enthusiasm. (“attributed”)

I wasn’t ready for that so I just chalked him off as another friend gone wrong. (“dismissed him from my mind”)

If it works you’ll make money, if not, chalk it up to experience. (“Consider it to be a lesson learned.”)

This is my plan. If you can chalk out a better, pray let me have it. (“explain, devise”)

Many Clouds chalks up win in Grand National (earns)

We chalked up his bad manners to too much sugar. (“attributed”)

Our live text reporting on the Conservative Party conference finishes here. But that’s not the end of the BBC’s coverage by a long chalk. (“by any means”)

The OED explains the idiom “by a long chalk” this way:
“in a great degree, by far (in allusion to the use of chalk in scoring ‘points’, etc.)

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3 Responses to “Chalk It Up”

  • Roberta B.

    How about “chalk talk” – An instruction, lesson, or explanation at the blackboard in front of a classroom or athletic team. This technique has been replaced by technology – first by the overhead projector with transparencies, and subsequently by PowerPoint! However, I think the term might still be used (now with dry-erase boards) – in academia to judge a thesis or evaluate instructors, or in the locker room for game tactics.

  • James

    “Chop it up” is also used as slang for “engage in casual conversation”. It’d be used in the same sense as “chew the fat”. I’ve never heard the phrase used in place of “chalk it up”, though.

  • venqax

    @Roberta B.: We still use the term “chalk and talk” referring to classes and programs that don’t require infrastructure like labs, rehearsal spaces, specialized engineering and computer programs, field equipment etc. “You need history, comp, lit, basic math, and other chalk-and-talk classes to pay for the expensive programs like moving image arts and chemical engineering.”

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