<< back to the archive list

January 25th, 2006

Disk vs. disc / words ending in 'shion'

by Barbara Wallraff

Adam Ford, of Ludlow, Vt., writes: “Computers have ‘disks,’ human spines have ‘disks’ -- but CDs are pretty much always ‘compact discs,’ and Frisbees and other sports discs are definitely always ‘discs,’ never ‘disks.’ If dictionaries are trying to keep up with modern usage, why don’t they recognize the differences between ‘disk’ and ‘disc’?”

Dear Adam: You’re right about all of those “disks” and “discs.” At least, your choices are the same ones that most professionals in the relevant fields make. You’re right, too, that dictionaries aren’t clear about all the distinctions. They tend to treat “disk” as the usual spelling and give a few exceptions -- not always the same ones -- for which they say “disc” is preferred. None of the major American dictionaries mentions Frisbees in its “disk” or “disc” entry. They do have “Frisbee” entries, which note that the word is a trademark and then use the word “disk” even though the Wham-O company calls its product a “Frisbee disc.” Boo.

In my experience, most people -- like you -- want dictionaries to advise them about the proper use of words. But dictionary editors say their job is to record how English is used by everyone, not just by people who know more than the rest of us about specific words. The distinctions between “disk” and “disc,” as used by people in general, are blurry and getting blurrier. If you read enough about any kind of disk or disc, you’ll find both forms of the word in use.

Honestly, for the most part I can barely keep the two straight. I wish everybody would just settle on one form -- probably “disk” -- and we’d never have to think about this again. But it’s not up to me. It’s up to the people who spend the whole day thinking and writing about disks of one kind or another to choose a spelling and stick with it. They never will. So all the rest of us can do, if we want to look as if we know what we’re talking about, is check with the most impressive relevant source we can think of -- such as Wham-O if we’re writing about Frisbees, or the American Medical Association if we’re writing about spines -- and follow its lead.

Laura Palmer, of Commerce Township, Mich., writes: “A friend told me there are three words in English that end in ‘shion.’ I’ve come up with two: ‘cushion’ and ‘fashion.’ I have not been able to come up with the third word. Would you help me figure out what it is?”

Dear Laura: I love electronic reference sources! I typed an asterisk followed by “shion” into the Oxford English Dictionary Online, and it came back with 178 entries that end with “shion.” All but one of them come from the two words you’ve already thought of -- for instance, “parrot-fashion” (meaning “the manner or style of a parrot” or “characterized by mindless and mechanical repetition”) and “whoopee cushion.” What’s left? “Hushion,” an old Scottish term for a stocking without a foot. Other sources give “fushion,” though according to the electronic dictionary Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, this is a mere variant of “foison,” which is archaic for “abundance” and Scottish for “nourishment” or “strength.” You didn’t know these words? Silly you. I didn’t either. Silly me!

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

<< back to the archive list