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chad (plural chad or chads)

noun [countable]

a small piece of paper or card which is left over when holes are punched in voting slips, data cards, etc.

chadless

adjective

'Florida, rich with sand, amusement parks and 27 electoral votes. According to at least four polling centers, McCain has a small lead in the land of the hanging chad, but the race still is too close to call.'

Steuben Courier, New York 14th September 2008

'Ventura County voters Tuesday will use a chadless punch-card machine that employs a chrome lever to mark choices …'

Yolo County Voting Technology Advisory Committee 28th February 2004

What links the election of the most powerful man on the planet and a tiny scrap of paper? The answer is the word chad, a relic of the times when Americans registered their presidential vote by punching a small hole in a ballot slip. (You can see a photo here, thanks to the University of Iowa Computer Science Department.)

the humble chad has been rendered obsolete by the use of updated voting technology

If you've ever used a hole punch prior to placing paper documents in a folder, you'll be familiar with a chad. It's that little bit of paper that irritatingly falls on the floor when you've punched your hole (though some punches have a neat mechanism for capturing it, so that the number of chads just keeps growing and growing until you eventually empty them into the bin in a sort of chad massacre!).

Though chads still crop up in certain aspects of life (e.g. they sometimes surface in shops, where holes are punched so that merchandise can be hung on pegs), they are no longer a feature of US election procedures. The humble chad has been rendered obsolete by the use of updated voting technology, with millions of dollars invested in providing chadless systems and e-voting (or electronic voting).

However, if you've been following coverage of the current presidential election, you'll almost certainly have seen or heard the word chad. Linguistically speaking, chad is alive and well, thriving in print and speech amid comment and speculation about the outcome on November 4th.

The reasons for this relate to the highly contentious election of 2000, when, in the state of Florida, a majority was determined by the counting of punch card ballots. Voters leaving incompletely-punched holes resulted in partially-punched chads, where one or more corners were still attached, a phenomenon famously described as the hanging chad. Similarly, there was the issue of the dimpled or pregnant chad, where all corners were still attached, but an indentation appeared to have been made. The validity of voting slips with hanging or dimpled chads became a hotly debated issue, because arbitrary decisions (i.e. hanging chads were counted, dimpled were not) had in fact influenced the outcome of the vote. After a recount of the Florida vote, the whole fiasco was humorously referred to as Chadgate (a blend of chad and -gate, a suffix which is now used productively to denote any kind of scandal).

Eight years on, and it seems that the pesky little chad is as famous as ever. It may no longer be physically present in the voting booths, but has acquired a certain resonance in election commentary, now pretty much synonymous with any whiff of controversy. The recent renaissance of chad has doubtless also been assisted by Recount, a film released in May 2008 which stars Kevin Spacey and chronicles the contentious Florida vote.

Background – chad

Grammatically speaking, chad has had an interesting evolution. Originally, it was thought of as a mass noun, with phrases such as a piece of chad being used to refer to the individual bits of paper. With popular use however, chad has become countable, and now has two plural forms chad and chads (compare fish, where plural forms fish and fishes are both possible).

The most recent edition of Merriam-Webster's dictionary dates chad back to 1944, though it states 'origin unknown'. Various unsubstantiated theories about chad's origins exist, including the Scottish term chad meaning 'gravel'. If you're interested in finding out more, check out this detailed discussion by linguist Michael Quinion.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This revised article was first published on 31st October 2008.

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