The Strange Tale of the Hotchkiss

Some time ago my attention was drawn to the origins of the word ホチキス (hochikisu) (sometimes ホッチキス) in Japanese.

To a native speaker of English who actually knows the word Hotchkiss, it usually refers to a WWI machine gun and related military impedimenta. To a Japanese ホチキス invariably refers to an office paper stapler, for which it is the generic name just as "hoover" is the term for vacuum cleaner in the UK.

When I first encountered the term in Japanese I assumed it came from the American brand of stapler of that name, which was dominant in the market in the early years of the 20th century. A Japanese participant in the sci.lang.japan usenet group was of the view it derived from the machine gun, so I went digging.

Some Japanese dictionaries attribute the term to the invention of the stapler by one B.B. Hotchkiss. We see, for example:

Daijirin:

ホチキス コの字形の針を紙に打ち込んでとじあわせる道具の商標名。 アメリカ人ホチキス(B. B. Hotchkiss)が発明した。 ステープラー。ホッチキス。

Koujien tells a slightly different story:

ホッチキス【Hotchkiss】 - 機関銃の一種。アメリカ人ホッチキス(Benjamin Berkeley H. 1826-1885)が発明。ガス圧を利用した空冷式のもの。 - 紙綴器の一種。「コ」の字形の綴じ金具を挿入し、把手を押して 紙などを綴り合せる具。綴込器。ホチキス。
So Benjamin B. Hotchkiss gets blamed for both machine gun and stapler, depending on the dictionary.

A bit further digging turns up the following:

  1. the gun, etc. indeed came from Benjamin Berkeley Hotchkiss who was an American who set up his company in France because the US government wasn't interested in WMDs then. The company diversified into vehicle parts, etc. as well as guns. He died in 1885, as Koujien says. (ref)

  2. the stapler appears to have emerged from the Jones Manufacturing Company, which was incorporated in 1895 by a group of people including George Hotchkiss and his son Eli Hubbell Hotchkiss. According to Curtis Scaglione (link below), the Hotchkisses bought a failing business in which the King stapler was considered a company asset. The company became the E. H. Hotchkiss Company in 1897.

    See the entry in the Stapler Database, the Brief History of Staples on a blog site, and the short article in the stapler of the week blog.

Nothing that I could find in WWW documents stated a relationship between the BB Hotchkiss (died 1885) and the Hotchkisses who 10 years later founded an office products company. As they all hailed from Connecticut, they may well have been related. In fact Curtis Scaglione has since informed me that according to Eli's great-great-grandson, Eli was related to the inventor of the gun. In 2008 Robert Katz emailed: "according to a friend of mine who is also a friend of some of the Hotchkiss family in Connecticut, E H Hotchkiss, ... was a nephew of B B Hotchkiss".

In 2003 I aired this on the jeKai mailing list. Yuno Hanlon passed on a reference to a site dealing with names and trademarks. The ホチキス section says:

現在は商標公開されている。ホチキスの歴史は こちら。 ホチキスの起源についてはこちらの Webページが詳しい。 これらの ページによると、 よく言われる機関銃とホチキスの関係は 同名の会社や創業者/発明者を 混同したことによる誤解のようである。

So Mr Shigeki Yoshida (吉田茂樹), the author of this site, thinks it is a case of confusion.

Yuno commented: "The entry for ホチキス provides a link to a page in the website of the office supply company マックス, which traces an (inconclusive) search for the origin of ホチキス by NTV. It also says that, according to another TV programme (なるほど・ザ・ワールド), Eli Hotchkiss is Benjamin's younger brother."

This conflation of the manufacturer of the Hotchkiss stapler and the inventor of the Hotchkiss machine gun seems to be a totally Japanese thing. I can't find a source for it outside Japan. Certainly nothing available about the Hotchkiss company in the US ever mentions Benjamin or his machine gun. Did Benjamin actually invent the stapler, but left it to relatives to turn into a product a decade or more after his death? It seems unlikely to me. I suspect a lexicographic slip which has been repeated, and has now become part of the folklore.

Was Eli a much younger brother of Benjamin, or was he a nephew, as Robert Katz reports? Quite possibly. If so they were quite an inventive family.

Jim Breen
February 2004
April 2008
February 2010

(Thanks to Yuno Hanlon for the additional references, and to Curtis Scaglione and Robert Katz for their advice.)


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