Apparatus and a method for easily expanding the effective width of the data words of a CAM without significantly increasing the basic width of the data storage registers or comparand register. A plurality of comparison blocks each include a register for data words having a predetermined width. Each data word includes a start bit, which indicates that a data word is the first data word of a much larger data word (or data line), and a chain bit, which indicates that a match has occurred between part of a comparand and the data word stored in the register. A maskable comparator provides a match output signal. The start bit is initially loaded into the chain-bit register for a data word. A latch is provided for storing the value of the chain bit from a preceding register into the chain-bit register of a following register. A priority encoder receives the match output signals from each of the comparators of the comparison blocks to identify the highest-priority comparison block, and the corresponding data line.