Grammar

Disc or Disk? Why Do We Need Both Spellings?

A collection of colored plastic floppy disks for older computers.Deposit Photos

Most of the time, we know when to use disc or disk based on context. But certain terms like disc jockey still cause confusion.

What’s the difference between a disc or disk? Largely, the answer depends on the kind of circular object we’re discussing. More specifically, it depends on the industry from which the object comes.

Over the past few years, many retailers have ended the sale of compact discs and even DVDs. That DVD stands for digital versatile disc. Computer manufacturers phased out compact disk drives years ago. Even CD-ROM drives, which stood for compact disc read-only memory drives, are harder to find these days.

If you’re keeping score in the faceoff for disc or disk, you may already have noticed a critical pattern. That pattern helps writers make the right choice between the two words.

That one-letter disagreement appeared from the start

The word derives from two early languages. In Latin, we had the discus, which Merriam-Webster says means a “disk” or “dish.” But Latin spells it with a C, not a K. The Greeks, meanwhile, spelled the word as diskos, which Merriam-Webster explains came from the verb dikein, which means “to throw.”

Here’s where it gets a bit odd. The diskos was a round, flat object Greek athletes threw for distance during the ancient Olympics. You’d think, since the Olympics were a Greek thing, today’s Olympic athletes from that particular sport would still be throwing a diskos. Oddly enough, the games with the Greek origin, at some point, switched to the Latin spelling. That’s why we have discus throwers today.

Hey, no one said things like grammar and spelling always made sense!

Disc or disk? When to use which

Grammarist tells us there’s “no consensus on the difference between disc and disk, and in many contexts the two are used interchangeably.” Well that’s of little help. After all, those of us who respect good grammar and want to commit it as often as possible actually like rules…even if we occasionally disagree with them!

Grammarly points out that there seems to be at least some consensus. It says Americans seem to like disc while their British counterparts seem to prefer disk.

But the real difference is the disc (or disk) itself. We tend to spell computer-related objects — particularly magnetic media — with a K. Remember those little plastic floppy disks from the 1990s? Devices that carry sound, like the compact disc, receive the C treatment. That leads to an obvious question: Shouldn’t the D in a CD-ROM stand for a disk? We have to keep in mind that “magnetic media” part of the answer above. A CD-ROM drive may or may not be able to write on a disc; but the method in which it writes is not magnetic. It may sound like hair-splitting, but it does at least provide at least a little consistency between the two.

Should it be a disc jockey or disk jockey? Well, if you base your answer on the criteria above, it would be disc jockey, since DJs deal with devices carrying sound. Originally, those discs were vinyl. At some point, they became tape cartridges that radio stations nicknamed “carts.” I don’t know how often radio stations broke out compact discs. In fact, I would wager that by the time compact discs were mainstream, radio stations had long-before switched to computer storage. Radio stations these days program content often well in advance through computer files that give the impression of a live DJ at the mic. But the days of spinning vinyl are largely over for most stations.

Ironically, after going from vinyl to tape to CD to computer files, there’s still a growing wave of vinyl enthusiasm. I still marvel whenever I pass through a store selling vinyl records. There was a time — not that long ago, it seems — I would have felt confident predicting that vinyl records were dinosaurs.

What about Frisbees and flying saucers?

There are more than two kinds of discs (or disks) in the world, after all.

What do we do with the Frisbee, that popular, albeit super-simple toy that can trace its origins back to 1937? It’s just a source of amusement. It certainly doesn’t contain magnetic media, but it doesn’t carry sound or video, either. It’s just a round piece of plastic that people launch toward one another.

Do we consider the Frisbee a disc or disk? Fortunately, we don’t have to spend much time pondering that mystery. The company that eventually purchased the rights to the toy, Wham-O, eventually settled the dispute in the 1960s. That’s when its general manager and director of marketing helped develop the sport of disc golf.

Today, while it may seem difficult to believe, there are actually professional sporting organizations based on flying disc sports, including disc golf — for humans and dogs!

The flying saucer craze that seemed to sweep America in the 1940s, however, led to a bit of confusion. Back in 1947, if you believe the official story, a United States weather balloon crashed in Roswell, New Mexico. To this day, more than 80 years later, people still insist it wasn’t a weather balloon. To them, it was a bonafide unidentified flying object. UFO buffs and conspiracy theorists hold the “Roswell Incident” as a favorite debate.

At the time, newspapers really didn’t know what to do when it came to describing what witnesses claimed to see. The Corsicana Daily Sun, for example, called it “a flying disk” in this headline. They even placed a pun that would make a certain news director I know cringe: “Army disk-ounts New Mexico find as weather gear.” The Visalia Times-Delta, meanwhile, ran an Associated Press story that referred to the object as a disc.

In a case such as that, your safest bet is probably to use the one closest to discos, which would be the one ending with the C.

Or, you could avoid that kind of confusion altogether and just call it a “flying saucer.” There. Problem solved!

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.

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