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While reading through Etymology of the use of "Drive" to refer to a digital storage medium and its various mentions of floppy disks, it occurred to me that, while drive is in origin a reasonably good and logical word to use for digital storage media, floppy isn’t really a very apt adjective to describe thin, magnetic disks encased in flexible plastic cases.

I understand (or I suppose I should say assume) the reason these were described with an adjective in that general ballpark is that they are in general quite a bit softer than their contemporary counterparts: not only is the magnetic disk itself so thin that it is easily bendable, the plastic case itself (especially the 8” ones) is also not very rigid and can easily be bent and broken.

What I don’t understand is why floppy in particular was chosen.

I’m just about young enough that I’ve only ever practically worked with 3 ½” floppy disks myself, but I have handled (and disassembled) a few of the old 8” disks that Wikipedia says were the first of their kind, and while it’s true that the magnetic disk is softish and easy to bend, on the admittedly few occasions where I’ve taken them apart, even the disk inside was still rigid enough that I would never describe it as floppy. If you hold it out horizontally, it may bend down a good deal just from gravity, but it doesn’t just flap and flop around like truly floppy objects like a crocheted doily or a piece of paper would.

Considering the wealth of descriptive adjectives in English, why did the developers of the early floppy disks (or whoever first thought up the name) choose the particular adjective floppy to describe them, rather than one of the many arguably more accurate adjectives like soft, pliant, bendy/bendable, etc.? Were early, pre-release versions of the magnetic disks perhaps made from an even softer material that did in fact flop loosely about, rather than just bending easily? Or was someone not very big on semantic distinctions and just liked the word ‘floppy’?

What’s so specifically floppy about floppy disks?

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There are 3 origins to choose from. None of the references look very solid.

The 5.25-inch disks were dubbed "floppy" because the diskette packaging was a very flexible plastic envelope, unlike the rigid case used to hold today's 3.5-inch diskettes.

References:
http://www.answers.com/Q/Why_is_a_floppy_disk_called_floppy
http://computer.howstuffworks.com/floppy-disk-drive1.htm

floppy disk (named so because they were flexible)

Reference:
http://royal.pingdom.com/2008/04/08/the-history-of-computer-data-storage-in-pictures/

Origin of floppy disk
in contrast to a hard disk, which is rigid

Reference:
http://www.yourdictionary.com/floppy-disk

In the end this article from IBM suggests the term originates from the flexibility of the medium, but it is never stated outright.

The team considered using magnetic tape first, but then, in a project code-named “Minnow,” they switched to using a flexible Mylar disk coated with magnetic material that could be inserted through a slot into a disk drive mechanism and spun on a spindle. “I had no idea how important it would become and how widespread,” recalls Warren L. Dalziel, the lead inventor of the floppy disk drive. The first floppies were 8-inch disks that were bare, but they got dirty easily, so the team packaged them in slim but durable envelopes equipped with an innovative dust-wiping element, making it possible to handle and store them easily.

Reference:
http://www-03.ibm.com/ibm/history/ibm100/us/en/icons/floppy/

  • 1
    +1 The first floppy I saw (either late '70s or very early '80s) was flexible enough so that the term floppy did not seem strange. – ab2 Jul 2 '16 at 19:03
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    This question seems to bounce around the net again and again. With, as you see, varied results. – Bookeater Jul 2 '16 at 19:09

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