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A simple question, so to re-iterate the title:

Why is a "field" on a form called a field?

A quick search for the etymology results in:

Old English feld "plain, open land" (as opposed to woodland), also "a parcel of land marked off and used for pasture or tillage," probably related to Old English folde "earth, land," from Proto-Germanic *felthuz "flat land" (common West Germanic, cf. Old Saxon and Old Frisian feld "field," Old Saxon folda "earth," Middle Dutch velt, Dutch veld Old High German felt, German Feld "field," but not found outside it; Swedish fält, Danish felt are borrowed from German), from PIE *pel(e)-tu-, from root *pele- (2) "flat, to spread" (see plane (n.1)).

Finnish pelto "field" is believed to have been adapted from Proto-Germanic. The English spelling with -ie- probably is the work of Anglo-French scribes (cf. brief, piece). Collective use for "all engaged in a sport" (or, in horseracing, all but the favorite) is 1742; play the field "avoid commitment" (1936) is from notion of gamblers betting on other horses than the favorite. Field glasses attested by 1836.

No mention of its use in forms?

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It doesn't explain the etymology, but it's that way on forms because it's referring to the corresponding "field" in the database, meaning one particular value for one particular column. (Reference here.) –  starsplusplus Jan 23 at 11:30
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@starsplusplus fields on forms predate databases by centuries. –  RegDwigнt Jan 23 at 11:31
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The origin is pretty straightforward. You have to call it something, and when you're looking at an empty rectangular space, you might as well go with field. Plain, open land on a sheet of paper. A rather transparent metaphor. Then one day computers come along and you just use for the GUI the same established nomenclature you've been using for paper. –  RegDwigнt Jan 23 at 11:33
    
Maybe I explained badly. I suppose the word "database" is generally thought of with regards to computers. I was trying to clarify that used in that way it refers to a particular segment of data (which could be in a filing cabinet or other manual bookkeeping of some kind). Perhaps the OP knew this, but it sounded to me like they were concentrating on the means of gathering said data. –  starsplusplus Jan 23 at 11:35
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@RegDwight: Fields on forms weren't called that until after the invention of punched cards; the earliest citation the OED has to either one is 1903, and that refers to punched cards—see Andrew's answer. –  Peter Shor Jan 23 at 12:33

2 Answers 2

up vote 10 down vote accepted

My Glossary of Computing Terms: An Introduction (pub BCS, 1984) says

Field is a predetermined section of a record

which covers forms as well.

OED shows the origin is surprisingly early:

19. Computing. Any one of a number of places where a user is expected to enter a single item of a particular type of data; an item of such data; esp. one in a database record. Cf. data field n. at data n.

Originally a group of columns on a punched card.

1903 Jrnl. Polit. Econ. 11 372 The fields are to be punched in the regular order by touching the keys indicated from left to right.

Data field was apparently first mentioned in a patent:

data field n. a section of a record, esp. in a database, in which an item of data is entered; each of the particular types of data held in a database.

1929 Brit. Patent 302,314 9/9 A previous inventory perforated strip P1, the separate data fields of which give, inter alia, the following data [etc.].

It's a fairly small step to extend other earlier uses to reach the above meanings:

10. a. An enclosed or marked-out area [for playing sport]

or even

II. An area of operation or observation.
12. a. An area or sphere of action, enquiry, or interest; a (wider or narrower) range of opportunities, or of objects, for activity or consideration; a theme, a subject. Freq. with of.
b. As a mass noun: scope, opportunity; extent of material for some specified action or operation. Freq. with for.
c. A particular branch of study or area of expertise or competence; a subject. Also more fully field of study.

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I'd presumed that the computing term comes from the earlier "field on a paper form"? i.e. I'm filling in a written application form using pen and ink and I write the data into the field(s). So it was this I was after really. –  Liam Jan 23 at 11:33
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@Liam: I suspect the term for a paper form comes from the computing term. Certainly, the OED doesn't have any citations for "field" on a paper forms that are earlier than the punched card citation. –  Peter Shor Jan 23 at 11:49
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that never even occurred to me. I'd presumed that paper forms pre-date computing forms so it must come from the earlier version. So what did they call fields on paper forms before computers??! –  Liam Jan 23 at 11:50
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Very good question. When I was in grade school, we said "fill in the blanks". But "blank" was an informal, childish word, and the correct, grown-up word was "field". –  Peter Shor Jan 23 at 11:54
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From the OED: blank, definition 5a. A blank space in a written or printed document. Earliest citation 1570. Earliest comprehensible citation: 1632 Warrantes..with blankes for names of plaintiff and defendant. –  Peter Shor Jan 23 at 12:27

Not a big mental stretch to got from a "field of study" to a "field of data"

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This appears to be a comment to Andrew's answer, accidentally posted as an answer? –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 29 at 1:35

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