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In a Word, Chad Is All That's Hot

November 20, 2000|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So how did the hanging, swinging, dimpling "chad"--sometimes a little pregnant--get its name? How did it evolve from policy wonk lingo to punchline of the year faster than an Al Gore sigh?

Two weeks ago, we all lived peacefully without knowing the word for the confetti-like bits of paper that are supposed to fall from a punched ballot. The outcome of the presidential election could hinge on how Florida's election officials rule on ballots with chads still attached by even a corner, or poking out like a pregnant woman's belly. Now the joke is that Florida's Republican secretary of state, Katherine Harris, is a sure bet for ambassador to the country of Chad, and that, no, "hanging Chad' is not on death row in Texas. Now, the international press is scrambling to come up with translations for pregnant chad. The translation Web site, www.parlo.com, offers these possibilities: in Cantonese, "dye toad tsee," or big stomach paper; in Farsi, "Kaghaz-eh hameleh," or pregnant piece of paper.

Chad is on fire, with its own cool back story to go with it.

We have a Mr. Chadless to thank for the term "chad," according to a story floating around the Internet. He was an American inventor who came up with a key punch machine that didn't spit out the material that the world now knows as chad.

Good story, says Laurence Horn, a professor of linguistics at Yale University. Only it's apocryphal.

"Chad" started to show up in dictionaries in the mid-1940s, as, yes, the term used to describe the wasted bits of paper that came from punch tape on teletype machines. But no one has produced any evidence of a man named Chadless, although linguists and other experts have certainly checked.

"It's more likely that Mr. Chadless was invented to match the story, like Thomas Crapper, who was apocryphal and didn't invent the toilet," Horn says. The story spread, in an urban-legend sort of way, the way the myth of the "leaked" Neiman Marcus cookie recipe did.

Turns out that the actual origin of "chad" is as boring as can be, as deflating as seeing the real wizard behind the curtain. The word's current meaning, experts say, apparently derives from the Scottish word chad, for gravel.

Still, the word captivates, with a combination of amazing properties, Horn points out. It is short, punchy, playful, familiar to us as a name.

"What everything hinges on," Horn says, "is a dimpled chad, which sounds like a fish or something that could have been caught off the coast of Florida."

The chad's teensiness belies its actual heft and gravitas, says Angela Della Volpe, professor of linguistics at Cal State Fullerton. "Something people relate to and sort of flip on its head is the fact that this little fragment of paper has such an incredible effect on American political life," she says.

The irony gives people something to latch onto at a confusing and tense time, says Carmen Fought, an assistant professor of linguistics at Pitzer College in Claremont. "The idea of a piece of paper being pregnant is very funny," Fought says. "It's very anti-common sense . . . and there are all these distinctions among chads, hanging ones and pregnant ones. They're sexually loaded. They're humanizing. They're kind of anthropomorphizing."

We like words that put us in the know, put us in the game with the media and Washington pundits.

"Words which arise from a [media] event are like wildfire. They will go ahead and spread very quickly," says Della Volpe.

In fact, the word is up for the American Dialect Society's "word of the year," possibly putting it right up there with other instant lexicon enhancers such as Y2K, cybersquat, Pokemania or the 1997 winner for most unnecessary word, "heaven-o," the substitute greeting for hello approved by the Kingsville, Texas, City Council.

We would hate to think that chad would go the way of the society's heap of other words that flame out, like "multislacking" or "jiggy."

For assurance, we turn to the Oxford English Dictionary's Jesse Sheidlower, principal editor of the North American division. "Chad," he sniffs, was already under consideration for inclusion before this brouhaha. Well, then, it's done. Chad is history.

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