In offices across Hong Kong, staff are writing out chits – of appointments, deliveries, food or drink consumed – to record payment due. The word “chit” and the earlier but now obsolete term “chitty” come from the Hindi chitthi, meaning note or letter, which comes from the Sanskrit chitra (“spot”, “mark”). This was how notes delivered by servants in British India were referred to; the Anglo-Indian term entered British usage in the mid-18th century, and is still commonly heard. In India, its greatest frequency occurs as “chit fund” – a savings scheme involving several subscribers, each of whom, in turn, are eventually entitled to the prize total.
The apparent connection (think: note, voucher, money) with that South Asian merchant class, the Chettis, and the hybrid Chitty communities (Tamil Cetti, Citti “mercantile class”) – descendants of male Chettis who married and settled in Ceylon, Malacca and Singapore in the 15th century – is perhaps specious. Word associations lie elsewhere.
While most terms that entered English as a result of the British empire have not been adopted into American English, chit is an exception, persisting particularly in military usage. Chits comprise notes or official letters entitling the bearer to permission or treatment – drawing pay, requesting leave, granting medical restrictions of duty. Blood chits, carried by military personnel, especially airmen, written in the local language(s), are addressed to civilians who may encounter them in difficulties, identifying the holder as friendly and requesting assistance. The British term “goolie chits” – purportedly from the Hindustani goli (“ball”, “marble”, “pellet”) becoming British slang for testicle – came from first-world-war flights over the Middle East, where local populations beheaded and castrated captured British pilots.
Military slang does get lewd: in the British Army “chitty bang bang” apparently came to refer to the permission slip that soldiers needed to leave the barracks – to visit local brothels; a first-world-war barracks song includes the bawdy lyrics “chitty chitty bang bang”. Chitty Bang Bang was the name given by eccentric Count Louis Zborowski to the series of four celebrated aero-engined cars he built and raced in the 1920s – though it is not determined if this was based, as a joke, on those song lyrics, or was onomatopoeic for the engine’s start-up noises. Among the race spectators was a young Ian Fleming, who was inspired to later write a children’s book about a flying car that fights organised crime – its title was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.