“Chew the fat” is an English expression meaning to indulge in casual conversation or gossip. It is related to the antiquated phrase “chew the rag.” Both phrases date to the 19th century and originally meant to gripe or complain. The origin of these terms is uncertain. Most sources agree, however, that they probably describe the mouth movements that are common to both chewing and talking.
The Oxford English Dictionary, a widely used reference for English words and phrases, records the earliest published appearance of such terms. It dates the phrase “chew the fat” to 1885, crediting it to a book about British soldiers stationed in India. Most colloquialisms, however, are used in conversation for years or even decades before they appear in print. “Chew the rag” appears in American sources as early as 1875. Although no definitive coining has been documented, both phrases seem to have originated no earlier than the middle of the 19th century.
The nature of the “fat” in “chew the fat” is equally uncertain. Some sources suggest it refers to salt pork, a staple of shipboard life in early naval history. Before the advent of refrigeration, food was often preserved by curing it with salt. This long-lasting source of protein was kept on ships for long voyages when other food supplies ran short. Salt pork could be tough and fatty, requiring thorough chewing before it was digestible.
“Chew the rag” is likewise accounted to sailors or soldiers who would be forced to chew on rags when chewing tobacco was not available. It is suggested that they complained about their deprivation, giving the phrase its original meaning; “chew the fat” has been given a similar explanation. There is no documentation to support these stories, however, and “chew the rag” may as likely derive from the phrase “to rag,” meaning to scold or complain. In any case, “chew the fat” took on the meanings “o make idle conversation or to gossip by the early 20th century. It retains these meanings in the present day, with its older meanings and variations usually forgotten.
In 1999, an anonymous essay titled “Life in the 1500s” appeared on the Internet and was widely circulated by e-mail. “Life in the 1500s” gave an inaccurate explanation for “chew the fat” and many other common phrases, such as “bring home the bacon” and “saved by the bell.” It credited these phrases to rural life in the 16th century, which was also inaccurately described and which predated many of these terms by centuries. Whether created out of mischief or simple ignorance, the declarations in “Life in the 1500s” have since been thoroughly discredited.