Of disks and discs
PENMAN - Butch Dalisay () - March 4, 2002 - 12:00am
As if the constitutionality of the Balikatan war games and the propriety of shipping Erap off to the States weren’t enough to give me a headache these past couple of weeks, I found myself profoundly bothered–in the same way that a catchy song can drive you nuts, played 20 times an hour–by the realization that I had just installed a new hard disk in my computer but that what I really wanted was to be able to burn a compact disc. So what’s the problem–my geeky frustrations aside?

The spelling, boys and girls, the spelling! "Hard disk" is spelled with a K but "compact disc" is spelled with a C. So who the sufferin’ Shakespeare cares?

Well, I do. I have to–I’m a professional editor, in one of my many guises (all of them cleverly designed to help pay the rent). If there’s one thing an editor can’t or shouldn’t stand, it’s an inconsistency in spelling, especially if it happens on the same page, let alone the same sentence.

And so I fretted all week about the disk/disc conundrum, feeling that my self-esteem as an editor and professor of English would be irreparably injured if I failed to bring some rhyme and reason to the discrepancy between the two spellings.

A little lexical sleuthing revealed that "disc" emerged out of the Greek diskos (itself from dikein, to throw) and Latin discus, referring, of course, to that platito the first Olympic hopefuls used to send flying into the air. (Methinks this was a development of the Greek habit of throwing and breaking plates at weddings–"Hmmm," some hunk of a wedding guest named Patroclus might have mused, "why not turn this waste of crockery into a sport–an Olympic sport?" This would also lead to the invention of Tupperware by another Greek with more frugal tendencies.)

"Disc" is defined by my American Heritage dictionary as merely "a variant of disk"–presumably the American preference–but it’s a busy variant, used in "disc brake," "disc harrow," and "disc jockey," aside, of course, from "compact disc" and "slipped disc." "Disk" gets the full treatment–"a round, flattened, platelike structure," etc., towing along a full complement of phrases such as "disk pack, "disk sander," and "disk wheel."

I suspect, though, that the matter’s much more than the usual rivalry between British and American English, as in the "color/colour," "curb/kerb," and "defense/defence" variations. According to my sources deep in the World Wide Web, "compact disc" was simply how its inventor spelled the term, and it stuck.

That fellow was American physicist and audiophile James T. Russell, who invented the CD in the late ‘60s, to deal with his frustration over the wear and tear on vinyl phonograph records. Not too many people seemed interested in the little CD at first, until companies like Sony woke up to its implications and licensed it after it had been developed to its present form over the ‘70s. (Russell’s many other inventions include an optical data recorder and player without any moving parts, still under refinement.)

The first hard disk, on the other hand, is credited to IBM, which trotted out the first computer disk storage system on Sept. 13, 1956. It was called the 305 RAMAC, for "Random Access Method of Accounting and Control," and it boasted an impressive 5 megabytes of memory–distributed, however, among 50 disks, each one of them 24 inches in diameter! The floppy disk would follow in 1970–portable and pocketable, but only if you had 8-inch pockets. (Remember the 5-1/4-inch floppies you booted into DOS and WordStar with? The 8-inch ones, which I’ve actually seen and handled with reverential awe, make you understand how they got their name–they were wide enough to be used for hat brims.)

Computers grew so phenomenally over the ‘90s in a kind of wild-frontier atmosphere that nobody really found the time to resolve the issue of "disk" vs. "disc." Well, almost nobody. The New York Times–I discovered from a website that devotes itself to editorial chismis (yes, Virginia, there must be a corner of the Internet for cantakerous old men and women fretting over their "in behalf or on behalf?"’s)–insisted on using "compact disk" for many years until even this leviathan of journalism had to yield to popular usage.

And so today, no one but professional worrywarts like me bats an eyelash when he or she’s told to insert a compact disc in a disk drive. Even I do it all the time, for the sake of Jobim, Debussy, and a dubious VCD or two.

It isn’t just disks and discs that have been bothering me lately, truth to tell. At a college-wide faculty meeting last week aimed at reviewing and approving curricular proposals, I chanced upon an entry that proposed a subject called "The Art of Theater" to introduce students to "the world of theatre." I’d been forewarned by friends at the speech and theater department, mind you, that the distinction between "theater" and "theatre" is more than a matter of trans-Atlantic preferences–i.e., that "theater" with the -ER connotes the physical structure with the stage, etc., while "theatre" with the -RE connotes the whole dramatic and cultural experience. Even some Americans, I was told, use "theatre" to emphasize the difference (and, I suspect, to sound just a little snootier).

The school-hours academic in me can appreciate that explanation, but the practicing editor, again, squirms at the very idea of having two spellings of the same word in the same sentence, this time without even the benefit of popular usage to render the distinction moot.

Some timely intervention from theatre director Ogie Juliano thankfully saved the day: the department, he said, had settled on "theatre" for all its course descriptions, and the first mention of "theater" was a typographical error. My day was made.

Let’s back up for a minute to another spelling complication: I swear to God that I once saw a local magazine advertisement selling "compact dicks." (If you don’t know what that refers to, then, bless your innocent soul, you’ll go straight to heaven if you get run over by a truck today.) Selling compact ones is bad enough, but selling hard ones may be even worse–though more likely to succeed.

Still, no one beats my trilingual maid Thata (yup, with the silent H) in spelling. One morning, as I was dashing off to the office, she slipped me this note, reproduced verbatim: "Kuya Butch caller, Sheryl of UP Press, tungkol daw po sa checkie."
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Send e-mail to Butch Dalisay at penmanila@yahoo.com.

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