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Thursday, July 13, 2006

It's a digression

It's not Moseley content, but it caught my eye and it needs a place to go.

I was skimming the latest posts at when I came across this one:
"Paul Brians, a professor of English, has compiled an extensive list of common errors in English usage. ... A hard drive and a hard disk are much the same thing; but when it comes to removable computer media, the drive is the machinery that turns and reads the disk. Be sure not to ask for a drive when all you need is a disk."
Please wait a moment while I get my pedant's hat adjusted. There. Okay. I have always wondered where disk came from when I've always referred to a flat, circular object as a disc. So the extensive list of errors seemed to me, at first glance, to contain a spelling error. However, I thought I'd better check, so it's off to the OED, where I am confounded by this statement in the etymology:
The earlier and better spelling is disk, but disc is now the more usual form in British English, except in sense 2g, where disk is commoner as a result of US influence.]
Following on to 2 and 2g, in order to see what the fuss is about:
2. a. A thin circular plate of any material.
g. Computing. A rotatable disc used to store data in digitally coded form, e.g. in a magnetic coating or optically. Cf. compact disc s.v. COMPACT ppl. a.1 II.1c, floppy disc s.v. FLOPPY a. 2, hard disc s.v. HARD a. 22c, optical disc s.v. OPTICAL a. 6.
So, are we back to disc as the preferred spelling? Or is Professor Brians correct in his use of disk?

I decided the thing to do was to look for further evidence of peculiarities. So I followed the link, which takes one to an list of all the entries in his text. The idea was to look for words that might distinguish a parochial use of American English from that of say, any other Anglophone country. Pretty quickly, I located 50's and hippie/hippy, then checked a few others to see if there were any further clues as to the rigour and breadth of his research.

Here's what he says about hippie cf. hippy:
A long-haired 60s flower child was a "hippie." "Hippy" is an adjective describing someone with wide hips. The IE is not caused by a Y changing to IE in the plural as in "puppy" and "puppies." It is rather a dismissive diminutive, invented by older, more sophisticated hipsters looking down on the new kids as mere "hippies." Confusing these two is definitely unhip.
That gives the game away, straight off. Prof. Brians seems unaware that the usual spelling in the UK for the former is hippy, while his etymology is decidedly tongue-in-cheek. I cannot say I have ever heard or seen his latter definition in use. I suppose he hasn't considered the meaning it has in the song "Hippy Hippy Shake" made popular by several artists, including a now rather famous band, and by its author, one Robert 'Chan' Romero. I suspect that Romero had something other than wide hips in mind. So Professor Brians is beginning to look a bit suspect in terms of grammatical authority.

On the other hand, he does provide a nice explanation fro something that used to drive one of my academic supervisors to distraction: the use of apostrophes in reference to a decade. Is the correct to write 50's, or is it only ever correct to write 50s? I like the former, and Brians' word on the matter is pleasant in its affirmation:
There’s no requirement for the apostrophe before the “S” in decade names like 50s and 60s, since there are no omitted letters, though it’s also acceptable to include one. The term may be written “’50s” since “19” is being omitted, but “50s” is fine too.
This one seems like it might be contentious, and because his judgement is now suspect, I am still not convinced. So it would be interesting to see some comments about it.

P.S.: sorry about those horizontal lines above and below blockquotes! Will have to see about deleting that feature from the blog template.