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I came across the word “a tad” which is unfamiliar to me in today’s New York Times’ article, titled “Yankees Bracing for Cold in Opener and in April.”

The article starts with the following line:

“March is not going out quite as lamblike as the adage would have it, which makes the prospect of opening day in New York just a tad less idyllic than one might hope.”

(Aside: My initial interest was the adage of “March is not going out quite as lamblike,” which I could easily make out.)

I looked for another example of the use of “a tad” through Google and found the following sentence in www.dictionary30.com.

“March comes in like a lion, as they say, and goes out like a lamb, and here in the middle of the month I'm feeling a little lamblike and ‘a tad’ lion-ish. "You're a liberal, so you're probably scared of guns,'' I was told by an ...”

I guess ‘a tad’ means ‘a bit’ or ‘a little’ or ‘slightly.’ However, what is good for using ‘a tad’ instead of using ‘a bit’ or ‘a little’ or ‘slightly’? Are there great differences among these three words? Is there any ‘added value’ in using ‘a tad’, in place of familiar ‘a bit’ and ‘a little’ and ‘slightly’?

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I'm told that a "tad" is, in astronomer's parlance, slang for ten parsecs, but sadly I can't find any reference for that. Similarly ironic measurement names might include "barn" and "shake" to mean ten-to-the-power-minus-twenty-four square centimetres and ten nanoseconds respectively. –  Brian Hooper Apr 1 '11 at 11:38
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A little is a bit more than a tad. –  B Seven Oct 28 '11 at 21:59

3 Answers 3

up vote 11 down vote accepted

One would use tad when one wanted to make the expression a bit more folksy than "bit" or "little" would come across. NOAD says this about the etymology:

ORIGIN late 19th cent. (denoting a small child): origin uncertain, perhaps from tadpole . The current usage dates from the 1940

If you were writing formally you would probably use one of the other expressions. But it is certainly fair game for sports or political diatribes.

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@Robusto-san. Thanks, as I always feel. –  Yoichi Oishi Apr 1 '11 at 5:50

I recall being exceptionally irritated back in the 80s when "a tad" suddenly became ubiquitous in the rapidly-growing context of personal computing magazines.

For several years, I never saw it anywhere else, but I used to subscribe to several such magazines, and they all used it. At the time I assumed perhaps one freelance writer who contributed to several titles just happened to like the expression.

By the 90s it was commonplace in most mass-market magazines, and for the last decade and more I've become accustomed to hearing it in speech too. 150 years ago it was just a folksy/slang term for a small child (probably from tadpole), but I've never heard it thus used in my lifetime.

To my ear, the current usage is an affectation - akin to a mite, or a smidgen/smidgeon/smidgin. It's often used where a speaker wants to distract attention from the substance of what's being said by using slightly "quirky" wording - no-one knows exactly how much a tad is, so it could be anything from "a detectable (but non-problematic) amount" to "far too much".

I'll also point out that the rise of "a tad bit" mirrors the decline of "a tidy bit". Clearly this casts "tad" as a different part of speech (adjective rather than noun), which to my mind strongly suggests we're dealing with a neologistic usage rather than something "continuous" from the original sense.

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You mean tad isn’t short for tadpole? :) –  tchrist Feb 25 '13 at 15:13
    
@tchrist: I mean I'm guessing it originally came from tad = tadpole = diminutive for a small child, but that was a long time ago, and probably effectively fell into disuse. When it was "revived" in the 80s (in the UK, at least), it just had the adjectival connotations of rather, a little, a trifle, somewhat, but the original noun sense was largely forgotten. Which to me would explain why increasing numbers of people are happy to say a tad bit (they think they need a noun, because they don't perceive tad as having that sense). –  FumbleFingers Feb 25 '13 at 16:22

The three expressions are roughly interchangeable. None of them are particularly formal.

"A little" or "A bit" are more often used in colloquial American English. "A tad" is less commonly used.

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