Think of me as the little man who won’t be there.
Dear Word Detective: I was looking at our team’s schedule for the next three months and exclaimed to my colleagues that it was “choc-a-bloc”! They looked at me mystified because they had never heard that term. I have always used the term, but when I went to look it up in Wiktionary and my trusty Chambers, I could not find it. I use it to mean “absolutely full.” Is that right, and where does it come from? — Tony Munns.
Well, there you go. That’s why I’ve never joined a team or a club — I need all the free time I can get. I realize that this puts me completely out of step with our busy-busy-busy society, where everyone has self-assigned activities hanging over their heads like airplanes circling LaGuardia. But look at it this way: somebody has to avoid joining reading circles, civic clubs, softball teams and political organizations so there will be somebody out there with the time to come to all your events. That doesn’t mean I’ll actually show up, of course, but you never know. Besides, it’s the game that counts. Have fun.
I was surprised that your Chambers, a reputable dictionary, doesn’t include “choc-a-bloc,” until I read your letter more closely and remembered that it’s usually spelled “chock-a-block.” If it doesn’t list that spelling, I’d take it back to the dictionary store. You’re bang on target, however, in using “chock-a-block” to mean “absolutely full,” or, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) helpfully elaborates, “jammed or crammed close together; also of a place or person, crammed with, chock-full of” (“The city’s two or three inns were chock-a-block and men were sleeping three, four and five in a bed,” Somerset Maugham, 1946).
“Chock-a-block” first appeared in print in the mid-19th century as a seafaring term. To understand it requires a bit of explanation of both “block” and “chock.” Both words mean, in their most basic senses, “a chunk of wood.” “Block” has gone on, of course, to acquire dozens of derivative uses based on the sense of something bulky and vaguely square, from a city “block” of buildings to “block” as a verb meaning “to prevent or impede.”
“Chock,” however, has had a more limited evolution, and is most often used today to mean a block of wood (often wedge-shaped) that is used to immobilize something (such as the wheels of parked airplanes). This noun use gave us the adverbial “chock” meaning “as close or tight as can be” (OED), with the sense of something being pressed tightly against something else, preventing its movement.
Meanwhile, one of the senses acquired by “block” was that of a block of wood housing pulleys, used with ropes to lift heavy objects (the blocks and ropes together being called “block and tackle”). Block and tackle aboard ships or loading cargo from docks often used several “pulley blocks” in tandem, but when the lower block rose to the point where it met the upper block, the load could be lifted no higher, and the situation was described as “chock-a-block,” i.e., “tight up against the block.”
This nautical use of “chock-a-block” first appeared in print in R.H. Dana’s classic Two Years Before the Mast in 1840, but within just a few years it had come into use in its modern figurative sense of “packed closely together” (“I’m blessed if we ar’n't about chock a’ block here!” Herman Melville, 1850). It is possible that the verb “to choke” also played a role in the development of “chock-a-block,” as it seems to have done in the case of “chock-full,” also meaning “stuffed or crammed full.” The earliest appearances of “chock-full,” which dates back to the 1400s, were in the form “chokke-fulle,” and only much later did “chock-full” become standard in the US (while “choke-full” is still found in the UK). Whatever the roots and original form of “chock-full,” however, the term almost certainly contributed to the later popularity of “chock-a-block.”