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That’s the trouble with obsolete technology: when you need to talk about it, you must drag out obsolete terminology. Yes, I’m still following the big political soap opera of the season in Florida. It was reported that the automatic vote-counting machines sometimes got confused because voters didn’t punch the holes in the voting papers right through and the dangling chad messed up the sensors. As a result, and perhaps inevitably, last Sunday’s New York Post referred to Chadgate. We’ve also had a lot of arcane technology appear, including swing-door chad, tri-chad, dimpled chad and even pregnant chad.

Most people associated with computing thought chad had gone out with punch-card tabulating machines, well BME (Before the Microsoft Era). Every time you created a new card, little punched-out bits of card would fall into a hopper below the machine, if you were lucky, otherwise on the floor. This was the chad. You can see exactly the same type of stuff if you give your office hole punch a good shake. By extension, it was also used for the perforated edge strips on continuous printer stationery after they had been torn off by hand or by a vicious machine called a burster. The Jargon File says it has also been known as chaff, computer confetti, and keypunch droppings.

According to the main reference works, nobody has the slightest idea where the word chad came from, though there’s a good chance that it pre-dates the computer. Punched tabulator cards have been around since the machines Herman Hollerith invented to analyse the 1890 US census and punched paper tape has been in use in teleprinter machines almost as long. In fact, from various sources, it seems probable that the term was invented in telegraphy, and only extended its meaning to punch-card technology later. Several people with long memories in the data processing business have told me that the IBM word for the debris from punching cards was chip, never chad.

Older people in Britain might think of a link with a curious little cartoon figure from the same period, forever saying things like “Wot? No bread?” as comments on shortages during and after the War. He was the British equivalent of the American Kilroy (indeed, the two met and merged in places with the cartoon appearing above “Kilroy was here!”). To the British man in the street he was always known as Mr Chad. Mr Chad, however, is not a relative of chad. It is said that it was the invention of George Chatterton, a British cartoonist, about 1938. Mr Chatterton’s nickname was Chat and the shift to Chad is easy to imagine.

Though some lexicographers would point to it being a variant form of chaff, there is another possibility. The story goes that a genius of the mechanical world was fed up with all these bits of confetti lying about and invented a machine that did away with them. Instead of punching a hole right through, it cut a notch and folded the flap back. The inventor, it is said, was a Mr Chadless and his machine was called the Chadless keypunch. The logic was inescapable: if the Chadless punch didn’t make computer confetti, then the stuff it didn’t make must be chad.

There’s one big problem with this: I’ve not been able to turn up any evidence that Mr Chadless ever existed, or indeed that anybody of that name exists anywhere. There is no reference to it in the US patents and trademarks registry, and it doesn’t occur anywhere in telephone directories in the US, Canada, UK or Australia. We must deduce that chadless was derived from chad to describe machines that didn’t litter. Damn, another good story broken on the wheel of academic research. The word is still around, though it has no capital letter and seems to be used only by the makers of automatic letter openers: chadless ones slit only the top surface of envelopes, so your mail room doesn’t end up looking like a hamster cage.

There has been much discussion in various places about an origin for chad in a Scots word meaning “gravel”. This was given in the Third Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, but the new Fourth Edition just says “origin unknown”. However, the English Dialect Dictionary gives chat with various meanings that suggest small things that occur in piles, a word which is also used in some places in the US for gravel used to resurface roads. To move from chat to chad is but a step. However, the connection is far from established.

One curiosity of the recent debacle is that the word has moved from being what grammarians call a mass noun to a count noun. In the former you spoke of chad as a pile of stuff, but had to say piece of chad when you wanted to speak of one of the little bits; recent comments have started to speak instead of chads, where the word does refer to one item. That’s not surprising: firstly, few current users ever encountered it in its heyday, and secondly, the single bits of stuff have taken on an importance they never used to have.

[Update, December 2006. US researcher Douglas Wilson has found the term in a US patent filed on 16 October 1930. This says, “There is also provided a receptacle or chad box 175 (Fig. 1) adapted to be removably inserted between the vertical arms of bracket 68 (Fig. 6) and disposed below die 72 to receive the chips cut from the edge of the tape.” This, like other patents he has found from the 1930s, refer to telegraph printer tape. So the term does indeed predate the computer era. But we’re no nearer finding out where it comes from.]

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Page created 25 Nov 2000; Last updated 30 Dec 2006