Our Daily Bleg: If You Don't Bargain With Chips, Why Say It?

Here’s the most recent guest bleg from Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations. His past blegs can be found here. Send us your own bleg requests here.

For years I have been posing a question about the term “bargaining chip” that no one has yet answered.

This is widely assumed to be a poker metaphor, but I do not know of chips being used for bargaining or trading in poker or any other game. What exactly is the metaphor?

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  1. Jan Bannister says:

    Might be a corruption of ‘Chit’, which meant a type of IOU years gone by…

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  2. Steve Rosen says:

    Maybe it’s because no one can eat just one.

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  3. Mike says:

    Fred wouldn’t happen to be related to Cleveland Indians GM Mark Shapiro would he?

    I think in a poker game chips are considered to be represent your assets (money, property etc.) and so “chips” has become another word to use for assets you have.

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  4. DB says:

    Out of curiosity, is there an answer section for any of these blegs? For the ones that ask a specific question (e.g. what is the origin of..?), has anybody actually figured any of them out? Call me lazy, but I don’t feel like checking through hundreds of posts to see if anyone got it right.

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  5. David says:

    I think you’re being too literal in looking for a game involving both chips and bargaining. “Chip” has long since made it’s way into the lexicon in settings having nothing to do with any game. “In the chips,” “down to one’s last chip,” “the chips are down” — all those expressions, while originally applicable to games involving chips, have spread to other areas, so that no one hearing them has to reconstruct the metaphorical origin to understand them. In this context, it’s easy to think of chips merely as assets, and no stretch at all to call some relatively minor asset that might be bargained away in negotiations a “chip.”

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  6. kujo76 says:

    From a 19 year old William Safire column:

    “A chop mark was placed on coins and documents to verify authenticity, and gave the word another sense of ”trademark, signature stamp.” A bargain-chop was an option on opium (and some think it may have been the basis for bargaining chip). In pidgin English used by traders in what was called the Far East (now Asia), coolies were sent in a hurry, or chop-chop.”

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  7. Michael says:

    There’s no bargaining in poker? Looking at the “bargaining models of war” in the political science and economic literatures alone would make poker look like a structured and institutionalized bargaining game and much easier to model than the processes that typify demand, escalation, and conflict in international relations.

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  8. Eric says:

    According to the OED, “bargaining chip” seems to have come into common usage during the Vietnam war. It seems that the chip it refers to is “A counter used in games of chance,” meaning any game of chance whether negotiating or playing poker.

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