chad etymology revisited

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Wed Nov 29 07:18:48 UTC 2000

Gerald Cohen states:

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

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 ....


I agree (tentatively/speculatively) with the general idea. I think the
original sense was "catkin", in French and in English: I am not sure
whether this comes from a likeness to the cat's tail or from a likeness to
a whole cat or kitten [cf. the distinct botanical "cat-tail"], but the
picture was "small [elongated] fluffy thing". This was generalized to
things which are like catkins: mostly small things, some of them elongated,
not necessarily fluffy. Perhaps the sense of elongation outlived the sense
of fluffiness (which was crucial to the original name "catkin" or
French/English "chat" I think), but eventually all that remained was
"small". By the time "chad" (probably) came to mean "punched paper chip" I
think it just meant "small item of which there are many" -- like wood chips
or (pieces of) gravel. The earliest chads (= paper chips) were probably not
(very much) elongated; I speculate that the original application was in
telegraphy punched tape or perhaps in perforation of paper in other
applications, such as postage stamps (apparently "chad" has been used in
connection with perforated postage stamps, but I don't know the chronology).

Alternative proposed derivations along the same lines would have "chad" <
"chaff" [alteration unexplained, but with a possible parallel in the EDD],
or "chad" < "chat(t)" = "louse" (another small numerous thing). One can
also picture "chad" < "shard", I suppose.

[There is plenty of documentation of "chip" as an exact synonym of "chad"
(modern sense, countable), and there is at least anecdotal evidence of
"chit" as a third alternative -- possibly a conflation of "chip" with
"chat"/"chad", although "chit" also exists with senses somewhat parallel to
those of "chat" (and possibly with a similar "cat"/"kitten" origin).]

["Chat" = "louse" likely comes from "chattel" = "possessions"/"livestock"
(cf. "cattle"), and not from "cat", I think. Another sense of "chat"
(obsolete, OED), = "provisions", probably has the "chattel" origin too, I

"Chat" = "[make] conversation" and "chad"/"chat" = "bird" (applied to
various species) probably come from another origin, "chatter". "Chat" =
"vulva"/"female pudenda" is transparently from French, originally = "cat"
(but here the "fluffy"/"furry" sense is preserved, I think). There is also
"chad" = "shad" (of obscure ultimate origin itself). I doubt these have any
application here.

A perhaps far-fetched possibility (but not as ridiculous as the "Mr.
Chadless" story IMHO): the adjective "chatty" once meant "dirty" (original
meaning: "lousy") (e.g., Farmer and Henley, ca. 1900). The teletype room
for example might have been referred to as "chatty" = "dirty"/"dusty"/"full
of chaff" -- thus "chad" = "dust-like or chaff-like paper residues".
["Chatty" will be indistinguishable from "chaddy" in some speech, I think.]

An even farther-fetched etymology: from St. Chad. The OED and other sources
give "chad-pennies" and "chad-farthings" = "[small coin] contributions for
upkeep of St. Chad's Cathedral [Lichfield]". Where did one deposit these
small coins? In the "chad-box" at the cathedral, I guess. The waste
receptacle on an early teletype device might have resembled this box, and
the contents (small discs) might have resembled the coins .... (^_^) [<--
NB: The smiley-face indicates that I don't intend this part entirely

Finally, for those who like the "Mr. Chadless" etymology, I offer (in
addition to a fine bridge for sale) an alternative back-formation from
"Chadband" (a much more common name than "Chadless"!) (a Dickens character
name, used occasionally as a common noun ["a canting unctuous hypocrite" --
OED]): if the paper teletype tape (invented by a certain Mr. Chadband, no
doubt) is a "chad band", then the paper fragments must be .... (^_^) (^_^)

I tentatively prefer a "small object" derivation myself, much like the one
presented by Gerald Cohen above.

-- Doug Wilson

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