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The meaning and origin of the expression: Chock-a-block

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Chock-a-block

Meaning

Crammed so tightly together as to prevent movement.

Origin

This term is old and has a nautical origin.

Chock:

The derivation of chock isn't entirely clear but the word is thought to have come from chock-full (or choke-full), meaning 'full to choking'. This dates back to the 15th century and is cited in Morte Arthur, circa 1400:

"Charottez chokkefulle charegyde with golde."

This meaning was later used to give a name to the wedges of wood which are used to secure moving objects - chocks. These chocks were used on ships and are referred to in William Falconer's, An universal dictionary of the marine, 1769:

"Chock, a sort of wedge used to confine a cask or other weighty body..when the ship is in motion."

chock-a-blockBlock:

This is where seafaring enters into the story. A block and tackle is a pulley system used on sailing ships to hoist the sails. It might be expected that 'chock-a-block' is the result of wedging a block fixed with a chock. That doesn't appear to be the case. The phrase describes what occurs the system is raised to its fullest extent - when there is no more rope free and the blocks jam tightly together. Frederick Chamier's novel The Life of a Sailor, 1832 includes this figurative use of the term:

"Here my lads is another messmate..." - What, another!" roared a ruddy-faced midshipman of about eighteen. "He must stow himself away, for we are chock-a-block here."

We might expect to find a reference to it in relation to ship's equipment before any figurative use, but the earliest I've found is in Richard H. Dana Jr's Two years before the mast, 1840:

"Hauling the reef-tackles chock-a-block."

Chock-a-block also spawned an abbreviated version in the 20th century - chocka (or chocker). This is WWII UK military slang meaning 'fed-up or disgruntled' - as defined in Hunt and Pringles' Service Slang, 1943:

"Chocker, this is the sailor's way of saying he is fed up or browned off."

See other Nautical Phrases.

See other reduplicated phrases.