Q From Ellen Smithee: A comment in the February issue of Angie’s List Monthly says that the term punch list gets its name from a period when contractors would punch a hole next to each completed item on a project list. The hole would go through two sheets, creating a copy for the customer. This has intuitive appeal, but so do a lot of folk etymologies. What say you?
A I’ve no personal experience of this term — it seems to be restricted to the civil engineering and building industries in the US and has never been used in Britain. Searching around, it turns out that the explanation given in the publication is a bit inadequate. A punch list is usually described as a list of matters that don’t conf0rm to the contract specification, usually minor items, that have to be corrected before final payment can be made. It’s also called a snag list — no doubt there are other terms for it in various countries.
I’m in two minds about the story of its origin. It does sound like a fable, but one that’s eminently plausible. It’s a simple method, easy to do on site and difficult to forge. It reminds me of an ancient method of ensuring legal documents were valid. The text was written out twice on one sheet of paper and cut apart by a deliberately jagged line. If the two halves could be put together with their joins matching, both parts were genuine.
I was sceptical about your story to start with, in part because the Oxford English Dictionary’s first example for punch list is dated as recently as 1961. Would such an unsophisticated method really have been created in modern times? Punch list was added to the OED’s entry for punch when it was revised in 2007, which implies the earliest dating is accurate.
No doubt Americans with long experience in civil engineering projects will now be disagreeing with the OED, for good reason. For starters, the first example in American newspapers I can find is a decade earlier:
In an inspection two weeks ago by the State Board of Health and the U. S. Public Health Service, inspectors prepared a long “punch” list of minor details that must be completed and cleaned up before the hospital can be opened and all contracts terminated.
Tipton Daily Tribune (Tipton, Indiana), 2 Aug. 1950.
Note the quote marks around punch, which suggests that the journalist writing the news item was unfamiliar with the term. That doesn’t mean much for dating the term, since the jargon of working life can be used for generations without being noticed by the public at large or reaching print.
Dating-wise, I’ve found references to punch lists in a couple of US legal judgements from the late 1930s. This is long enough ago — before modern technological alternatives — that the suggested origin seems reasonable.
That’s the best I can do, I fear. Perhaps readers can help?