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


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Chock-a-block'?

Crammed so tightly together as to prevent movement.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Chock-a-block'?

This term is old and has a nautical origin.


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."


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 when 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.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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