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For The Love Of Verbivores: Disk Versus Disc

Jan 27, 2008
Long-time readers of my newspaper columns know that exploring the etymology of words is a hobby--some would say a passion--while others would characterize it as a pathological obsession in need of immediate medical intervention.

As a card-carrying verbivore, I have observed through the years that floppies, hard drives, CDs, DVDs, and other digital storage devices have been referred to as both "disks" and "discs." With no discernable life beyond the keyboard to divert my full and undivided attention, I decided to investigate, and herewith present the results of my semi-exhaustive research:

When new words enter the English language, they often appear in one or more variations until one form prevails over the others, usually as a result of popular usage and occasionally misuse. There are also occasions when competing forms of words remain within the common parlance for protracted periods of time. Such is the case with "disk" and "disc."

When the word "disk" first appeared in the mid-17th century, it was initially spelled with a "k." The upstart "disc" muscled its way onto the scene approximately 50 years later as a derivative of the Latin discus--though the Greeks didn't help matters by spelling it "diskos," which brings to mind images of polyester, strobe lights, and John Travolta in a white, linen suit.

The spellings "disk" and "disc" were used interchangeably well into the 20th century, with citizens of the U.K. tending to use "disc," and Americans preferring "disk."

With the passage of time, their respective spellings began to align with function. Late in the 19th century, people started using "disc" to refer to a new method of making phonograph recordings on a flat, platter-like device. "Disc" became the accepted spelling within this context, which is why we listen to disc jockeys and not disk jockeys.

In the 1940s, however, when American computer scientists were in dire need of a term to describe what were then flat, data-storage devices, they chose the spelling "disk," and this became the common usage in related words such as hard disk and floppy disk.

Jumping ahead a few decades, when the compact disk made its debut in the 1970s, both "disk" and "disc" were in competition. Computer users preferred the familiar "disk" spelling, while self-proclaimed groovy hipsters within the '70s music industry, considered the shiny circular plates as another form of phonograph record, and thus referred to them as compact "discs."

These preferences soon became standard usage in the different industries. That's why we buy compact "disks" in computer stores, but the same storage devices that contain music are called compact "discs" in music stores. To further complicate matters, the computer industry created the optical "disk," which is the same format that the entertainment industry used to create the video "disc."

And if that's not confusing enough, if you attempt to lift a large stack of compact discs, you may wind up with a--you guessed it, a herniated disk. But that's another story for another time.
About the Author
Mr. Modem (MrModem.com) is an author, syndicated columnist, radio host, and publisher of the wildly popular, always entertaining, Pulitzer-lacking weekly "Ask Mr. Modem" computer-help newsletter. Mr. Modem's columns appear in more than 300 publications and each month in "Smart Computing" magazine. Visit MrModem.com for additional information, to view a sample issue, or to subscribe.
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