Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Robots with Stiffies?

A stiffyI recently was informed by a translator in South Africa that he could deliver a translation to me “by e-mail or on a stiffy”. The latter seemed an unappealing means of delivery involving considerable inconvenience to the translator—if I understood him right. Suspecting that I didn’t, I immediately contacted my friend in South Africa, Chris Stewart, asking that he help me work out a clearer understanding of the translator’s intent.

The first computer disks were portable (removable) 5.5″ disks that were flexible. Rather than the obvious name, flexible disk, geekdom produced the term “floppy disk”. This same term is used in the US today to refer to the 3.5″ inflexible disks in hard plastic casing first introduced by Apple and that still have a place in some computers today (see picture above).

The South Africans, however, wisely concluded that if the flexible disk was a “floppy”, then the inflexible one must be a “stiffy”, ignoring any variation in the meaning of that term around the English-speaking world. The “stiffy”, therefore became the name of the small removable disks with the hard plastic shell that we use today.

Chris was the one who pointed out to me, after I distributed robot as one of our Good Words, that in South Africa a robot was a traffic light. He claims to enjoy watching the expression on the faces of Americans and Brits when he gives them directions to his house: “Take a left at the second robot on Suchansuch Road.

Has South African English been unduly influence by Scottish?

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