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Flash, USB, thumb or jump?

Usually when a new product becomes popular, language quickly evolves to agree on what to call it. Everybody knows what to call a game system, smartphone, or SUV, even though those things were once known by a host of names. (Do you use your wireless PDA in your four-wheel drive?)

But occasionally language fails to keep up, and we’re stuck with a split. For example, what do you call one of these?

Is it a USB drive? Flash drive? Thumb drive? Jump drive? This product has changed very little since it was introduced in 2000, and yet all four terms are still in use a decade later.

If we enter those phrases into Google Insights to see their search popularity, we get this chart:

So we see USB Drive has a commanding lead. But this data isn’t perfect. Some people searching for “USB drive” might have been looking for a USB hard drive, which is a different product. (And some people searching for “jump drive” might have been looking for information about the sci-fi propulsion system.)

So let’s punch the words into Amazon. Amazon returns 97,248 for flash drive, 80,001 for USB drive, 2,638 for thumb drive and 875 for jump drive.

The conclusion? The phrases “jump drive” and “thumb drive” have basically lost, leaving an extremely tight race between “USB drive” and “flash drive.”

Some marketing people just split the difference. Retailers like Best Buy and Staples file them under “USB Flash Drives,” which nobody says in real life because it’s too long. On Wikipedia, we find a page called USB Flash Drive, with redirects coming in from all four phrases.

In some ways, neither name is perfect. USB refers to Universal Serial Bus, the technology used to connect the drive to another piece of hardware. Flash refers to the kind of memory in the devices. There are USB drives that aren’t flash drives, and flash drives that aren’t USB drives. In the future, either technology could be replaced by something new, necessitating another name change.

More likely, however, we’ll stop using portable storage drives entirely. Computer networking is close to becoming so efficient that we can readily transfer data from one device to another without needing an intermediate step. Borrowing a phrase from Microsoft: To the cloud!

The poor USB flash drive: A product sentenced to death before it’s even properly named.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Technology, Words

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