Learn English – Why do we “chalk it up” to something (or someone)


What is the etymology and meaning of the phrase "chalk it up"? For instance:

  • "I will chalk it up to a colloquialism" (source).
  • "Just chalk it up as an odd case and move on" (source).
  • "I would chalk it up to more ignorance than apathy…" (source).

Best Answer

J.S. Farmer and W.E. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues (1890), says that "to chalk up, or to chalk it up" is "To credit, or take credit; to put to one's account." In the context of tavern bills, "take credit" means to accept a promise to pay such a debt. The book then offers three historical examples of this usage (with the year given first):

[1597] 1st Pt. Return Parnass. I., i.. 451. "All my debts stande chaukt upon the poste for liquor." [M.]

[1611] Chapman, May-Day, Act I., p. 278 (Plays, 1874). "Faith sir, she [hostess] has chalked up twenty shillings, already, and swears she will chalk no more."

[1843] Punch's Almanack, Jan. ... "When you wish for beer, resort freely to the chalk, and go on, getting as much as you can upon this principle, until it becomes unproductive, when you may try it in another quarter."

Slang and Its Analogues also reports that "chalking the lamppost" was mid-nineteenth-century slang in Philadelphia for bribery.

Christine Ammer, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997), says that "chalk up" has two meanings, with different dates of emergence in English:

  1. Score or earn, as in "She chalked up enough points to be seeded first in the tournament." This term alludes to recording accounts (and later scores) in chalk on a slate [c. 1700] 2. Credit or ascribe, as "They chalked their success up to experience." [First half of 1900s]

In my view, Ammer invites misinterpretation of the common phrase "chalk it up to experience" by associating it with a success to be explained, rather than presenting it as an attempt to put a positive spin on something more or less unpleasant. I would have said that "chalk it up to experience" means something like "consider it part of the ongoing price you pay to become wiser and more experienced." I notice that FumbleFingers has made a similar point about that phrase.

Finally, Eric Partridge, Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1961), reports that in the UK in the 1920s, "chalk it up!" could mean "Just look at that!" He cites J. Manchon's Le Slang (1923) as the source of this information.