The Florida vote-counting debacle during the 2000 US presidential election brought the rather obscure and obsolescent word chad to the attention of the public. A chad is that bit of paper left behind when punch cards and paper tape are perforated. Since by 2000 most of the computing world had abandoned punch cards and paper tape, the term had fallen out of use except in specialized applications such as voting.

The origin of the word is unknown. There are several possibilities and a couple of commonly touted explanations that are almost certainly false. While chads have been with us since the automated machinery was introduced into 18th century textile mills at the beginning of the industrial revolution, the word chad itself is relatively new and the name appears toward the end of the technology’s life cycle.

The first known use of chad is in a 1930 patent application (US Patent #1,884,755):

There is also a provided a receptacle or chad box (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.

And a 1938 patent application (US Patent 2,213,475) links the word chad with chaff:

Positioned above the the code punches 13 is a chaff or chad chute 101.

There is also this from a 1939 patent application (US Patent #2,273,909) by the Teletype Corporation:

Prior devices of the type according to the present invention have been arranged to cut out the perforations completely at a single movement, thereby producing chads or pieces of waste material which often present difficult problems of disposal. The present invention provides a perforating arrangement whereby the perforations are not completely cut out, but the chads are permitted to remain attached to the perforated material.

There is also the adjective chadless, referring to perforation that does not leave chads behind (important because the bits of paper can foul machinery). This appears in 1947.

So where does it come from? There are several, possibly all related, words that are similar from other industries. One such is the Scots word chad, which Warrack’s Scots Dialect Dictionary defines as:

chad n 1 compacted gravel. 2 small stones forming a river bed. 3 a rough mixture of earth and stones, quarry refuse.

It is a small semantic leap from quarry refuse to paper refuse.

There is also an English dialect word chat, meaning a wood chip. And there is, of course, chaff, the leavings from threshing grain. Any or all of these could have influenced chad, but we really don’t know for sure.

There are two proferred explanations that we can definitely discount though. Chad is sometimes said to have come from a certain Mr. Chadless, who invented a chadless keypunch. Chad, in this explanation, is a back formation from chadless. But no record of any such man has been found and what evidence we do have suggests that chadless followed chad, not the other way around.

The second false explanation is that it is an acronym for Card Hole Aggregate Debris. As with most proffered acronymic origins, this one is bogus on its face.

(If you want to know the origin of the cartoon character Mr. Chad, see the entry for Kilroy.)

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary; Warrack’s Scots Dialect Dictionary; “Two Early Attestations of Chad,” Douglas Wilson, Comments on Etymology, Feb-Mar 2007.)

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