chad etymology revisited

Gerald Cohen gcohen at UMR.EDU
Wed Nov 29 02:02:46 UTC 2000


        In his Nov. 20, 2000 message Douglas Wilson correctly draws
attention to Joseph Wright's _English Dialect Dictionary_ for insight
into the etymology of _chad_.  I would like to follow his lead but
select a different interpretation of the evidence presented in that
dictionary.

        The central piece of information is apparently _chat_ (with
the variant _chad_ in West Yorkshire and Derbyshire) in the meaning
"catkin." My dictionary tells me that a catkin is "a usually long
ament crowded with bracts." That might as well be written in a
foreign language, but what strikes me is the etymology given for
"catkin": "from its resemblance to a cat's tail."

        In other words, the starting semantic point is not something
that falls into a pile but something long and thin, something
protruding.  Hence, e.g. meaning "6: "a protruding of blackthorn,
etc. running into a field from the fence."

        Of particular interest is meaning #5: "a chip of wood, a
small twig or branch used for firewood." I would suggest that the
"small twig or branch used for firewood" has the primary meaning
(something long and thin, akin in shape to a catkin). And  "a chip of
wood" is the secondary meaning, developed from the wood to be used in
kindling a fire.

        This "chip of wood" is evidently the immediate ancestor of
_chad_ in its present, information-age usage.  So the ultimate
etymology of _chat/chad_ seems to be no more remote than the word for
"cat"--with the imagery coming not from the whole animal but just its
tail (thence" "twig"; thence "chip of wood," thence "a punched out
chip-like piece of paper."

        Once _chat/chad_ received its meaning "a chip of wood," this
new meaning was extended to other small objects:  "a piece of coal"
(meaning #8),
"a small potato of inferior quality" (meaning #7).

        I have already stumbled once in seeking the etymology of
_chad_. Is the present attempt perhaps more plausible?

------Gerald Cohen




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