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Computing Vocabulary: Those USB Flash Things

I'm going to take a break from that... phone pricing issue that everybody's buzzing about over at Post I.T., and which has even migrated to our op-ed page, in the form of Gene Robinson's fine essay. (Seriously: I'm so sick of it that I'm not even going to type the name of that gadget.)

Instead, I want to talk about something more important: What the heck do you call those little USB memory thingamabobs most people use to transfer files?

The most popular term for them seems to be "USB flash drives." It's short, catchy, memorable--but also fundamentally wrong, as flash-memory storage doesn't involve a drive of any sort, or even any moving parts.

I've heard other people call them "memory sticks." I like that--in part, because that usage steals a perfectly good description back from Sony, which still labors under the delusion that people like its proprietary Memory Stick format. Most USB flash-storage units also take the form of a stick (notwithstanding some bizarre exceptions--USB sushi, anyone?). Then again, the term "memory stick" can also apply to flash memory in general; this summer in China, I saw memory cards of all shapes sold as "memory sticks."

For a while, I tried to push the term "USB keychain", but I don't seem to have gotten anybody to join me in that usage. And it's not like I've ever carried around a USB... whatever on my own keychain anyway.

"USB fob" suffers from that problem as well. Besides, admit it: Have you used "fob" in conversation lately?

We could give "USB pod" a shot--the name describes the shape of these things quite well--but there's always the risk we'll get sued for using the name "pod" by a certain Cupertino, Calif., computer firm.

Most dismaying of all, the Wikipedia entry for these things reports that some manufacturers are now condensing "USB flash drive" down to "UFD." Ugh.

What do you call them? Got any suggestions for an upgrade for this branch of our computing vocabulary? Fire away in the comments!

By Rob Pegoraro  |  September 7, 2007; 10:18 AM ET
Categories:  The business we have chosen  
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I've heard and used "thumb drive" (may have been a product name), and heard but not used "jump drive" (that was definitely a product name). Just keep that U3 crap off mine and I'll call it anything you want.

Posted by: Larry | September 7, 2007 10:38 AM | Report abuse

In middle school we refer to them as"flash drives," since the kids must go to "my computer" on the PCs and locate the device in the same area where they find the hard drive and other network drives. It seems to help them know how to find it once it it plugged into the USB drive. Yes, it has been explained to the kids that they are using "flash memory" with these little thingamabobs, in a way similar to their ipod nanos. Nope, we have not encouraged them to back their information onto their ipods, even though it is possible.

Posted by: rjrjj | September 7, 2007 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Saying "flash drive" is incorrect because nothing "drives" seems overly pedantic. And if I think something is overly pedantic, then it must be really bad.

Haven't seen "UFD" before, but I do think that it's pretty silly.

Posted by: kevin | September 7, 2007 11:14 AM | Report abuse

USB Key is what people call them here

Posted by: Amy | September 7, 2007 11:35 AM | Report abuse

I've always called them USB keys too.

Posted by: jp | September 7, 2007 11:38 AM | Report abuse

Amy & jp - Where is "here"?

Posted by: DLD | September 7, 2007 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Thumb drives, flash drives, memory sticks. Those are the big three for me. And since I don't have to deal with them in print on any formal basis, I can be flexible. Incidentally, just for fun, look at the Google ads at the bottom of the page if you want to see what the market calls them.

Posted by: 23112 | September 7, 2007 12:14 PM | Report abuse

My fellow geeks and I use USB flash drive or just flash's memory, but it's for STORAGE, not for computing power or running programs, so it's a drive. And as rjrjj (that took me a minute) pointed out, when I plug mine in, I almost always access its files by opening...drum roll...the F: drive!

Posted by: The Cosmic Avenger | September 7, 2007 12:19 PM | Report abuse

USB key is good. I like it.

I have a client who refers to them as "those UFO things." I like that, too, but I don't think I'm going to get away with that in here.

Posted by: cate | September 7, 2007 12:27 PM | Report abuse

Here's another vote for USB key, which is what I usually call them. Also jump drive, just because that was the brand name of the first one (from Lexar, I believe) that I used.

Oh, and I also couldn't agree more with Larry on my disdain for U3 software. Talk about an annoying "solution" to a non-existent problem.

Posted by: Dan | September 7, 2007 12:50 PM | Report abuse

I usually use thumb drive or USB drive.

Posted by: Jonathan | September 7, 2007 1:05 PM | Report abuse

I call mine a jump drive because the only one that still works is a JumpDrive (R). But USB key works for me too.


Posted by: Jeff Cornelius | September 7, 2007 2:00 PM | Report abuse

23112: On this computer, Google calls these things "Bush Countdown Calendar" and "Redskins Ringtones." (On the one next to me, the ads are for what you'd expect: "USB Drive Sale," "Usb Flash Drive," "Cheap USB sticks.")


- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | September 7, 2007 2:12 PM | Report abuse

I've always called them thumb drives, based on nothing more than they are the size and shape (roughly) of a thumb and that seemed as good a thing to call them as anything else. I'm pretty sure that "jump drive" is a Lexmark creation, though I may be wrong on that...

Posted by: Bob T | September 7, 2007 2:18 PM | Report abuse

what are these ads of which you speak?

Posted by: Mike | September 7, 2007 2:24 PM | Report abuse

Flash drive is applicable, stick works, too.

I don't like 'key' because it doesn't unlock or open things. We have applications here that require a USB dongle or key in order for the software to work. Calling storage media a key isn't accurate and confusing.

Technically Rob, you should refer to it as a 'Solid State Storage Device' --- SSSD? 3SD?

Posted by: Kim | September 7, 2007 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Hmmm. Am I the only one who calls these gizmos "Key Drives?" Guess it's a variant on several combinations mentioned so far?

Posted by: Kimosabe | September 7, 2007 2:56 PM | Report abuse

I have never referred to it as a key drive. They're kinda hard to keep on keyrings anyway, except for the Lexar one with the plastic all around it that you can remove from the keychain to use.

USB Drive. It uses USB, many people know what that means. It's a drive, many people know what that is. Not many people know what flash means.

Posted by: Matt | September 7, 2007 3:05 PM | Report abuse

USB drive seems to be the most common. Although it is true that nothing is moving, the term drive is often used without mechanics, i.e. sex drive, charity drive, etc. Although I commonly call them just "USB stick" as the foreign grad students I work with seem to recognize that.

Posted by: mark | September 7, 2007 3:40 PM | Report abuse

Hey RP- Google must know you pretty well, you got different ads at the bottom of the page because their engine records every search you make, and then customizes the ads to show you things you are more likely to click on. Rock on, you Bush dissing Skins fan you.

Posted by: Justin | September 7, 2007 3:59 PM | Report abuse

When the first USB THUMB drives came out, the motherboard hardware listing for them, in the BIOS (Basic Input Output System), or "setup" screen, of each computer, was designated as "thumb drive". This listing allowed one to turn on or off the computer's ability to see/use it.

Though there are different shapes these days, the "thumb" denotes "smaller" (as opposed to the 20Gb-300Gb external USB hard drive storage units). Of course, with the advent of larger USB thumbdrives, I now have a 4Gb USB thumbdrive device, and who knows eventually what size capacity there will be in future devices.

So, my suggestion is to use "USB thumbdrive" for any units other than external USB hard drives

This is probably too much information for most folks, but rather know more and discard than be ignorant, no?. LOL

Posted by: Ed Clark | September 7, 2007 4:11 PM | Report abuse

Google Ads on my computer has USB
Sticks, USB Drives and Usb Flash Drive.

If you call it a "memory stick" Sony might sue you for copyright infringement.

If you call it a USB Drive, is it a small portable flash memory device or is it a portable hard drive that connects a USB port?

Usb Flash Drive is just to long.

I think USB Stick might be the best name.

Posted by: Jack | September 7, 2007 4:46 PM | Report abuse

The problem with "USB Drive" is that U-S-B is such a mouthful to say and takes too long to pronounce. A short word like "Key" or "Thumb" or "Stick" is just easier to say.

Like, "Hey, dude, my computer's crashing, hand me the UuuEssBee Drive, stat!" is just not going to happen.

Posted by: Kimosabe | September 7, 2007 5:41 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: BRUCEREALTOR@GMAIL.COM | September 7, 2007 7:23 PM | Report abuse

Um, I think The Post and all here will survive just fine without your comments, Bruce...

Anyway, back to Rob's post: my wife always calls them "port devices" based on the Windows message that pops up when you eject them. I and my colleagues (IT guys) always call them flash or thumb drives - we rarely use USB or jump in the title.

Posted by: PK | September 7, 2007 8:07 PM | Report abuse

Here's another vote for "USB key." That's what I've been calling them for years.

Posted by: Chris | September 7, 2007 8:42 PM | Report abuse

I'm not voting for "thumb drive" because I don't much like the term, but that's what everyone I know calls them, so I call them that too.

I guess mine is basically thumb size, and it does fit on my key ring with no problem.

Posted by: BW | September 7, 2007 9:16 PM | Report abuse

I call it a USB flash drive not because it's correct, really, but because everyone understands what I mean when I say it.

I don't like "key" -- it sounds like it unlocks something.

Posted by: Tony | September 7, 2007 9:42 PM | Report abuse

In Tanzania conversation it is One syllable - Flash.- "do you have your flash?" "I'll put it on my flash", Its not recognizing the flash"

Posted by: Jean | September 8, 2007 12:22 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: BRUCEREALTOR@GMAIL.COM | September 7, 2007 07:23 PM "

Apparently holding his breath didn't work...

Posted by: Dorkus Amongus | September 8, 2007 12:59 AM | Report abuse

I think we have a great opportunity here thats seems to have been overlooked by most posters.

We know what these things do, and we know the various names that have been associated with them.

We need to think about what they ought to be called and we don't have to describe what they do in the name. After all, a mouse doesn't "mouse" - it just looks like a mouse.

Any idea, people....give it your best shot. What would you name these nifty gizmos if you could decide what everyone would call them?

They always make me think of Keanu Reeves in the movie based on William Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic", so that gets my vote. I think they should, from here on out, be called johnny mnemonics!

[from IMDb...A data courier, carrying a data package literally inside his head too large to hold for long, must deliver it before he dies from it.]

Posted by: Patrick Huss | September 8, 2007 1:16 AM | Report abuse

I would like to comment on the Capital One AD on TV that shows a man dressed as a fairy, opening a little girls window. As a father of three, now a Grandpa, I am horrified

Posted by: gmastry | September 8, 2007 12:50 PM | Report abuse

The Google ads at the bottom of this page call them USB Flash Drives. Since Google knows everything, that's what they must be called.

Posted by: hooray | September 8, 2007 1:22 PM | Report abuse

It seems like computer terminology is always based on outdated concepts. In fact, that's how etymology works.

Just to name a few:
- 3.5" floppy disk (even if the disk could theoretically bend, the plastic casing is quite solid)
- Shift key (wouldn't it have been better called the "Caps" key?)
- "Return" vs. "Enter"
- PS/2 port

So I don't see any problem with "flash drive," considering how messed up every other term is. We may still be calling it that when some new technology comes out that replaces flash memory.

Posted by: BR | September 8, 2007 1:52 PM | Report abuse

I have always used Thumb Drive or USB Drive.

Posted by: Susan | September 8, 2007 2:15 PM | Report abuse

after viewing the name comments above, I agree that USB Stick is the best name so far. Stick give you an idea of the device, and it sound better than thumb. Since Sony already call its device a Memory Stick, so why not call the generic USB flash memory device a USB Stick.

Posted by: | September 8, 2007 6:44 PM | Report abuse

Here in Argentina, people call them "Pen drives", for what it's worth.

Posted by: Enrique Londaits | September 8, 2007 7:11 PM | Report abuse


and really .. who cares?

Posted by: Alan | September 9, 2007 4:31 PM | Report abuse

To each her own,
I call the 2G I use all the time GiGi. The other two units that came with the package, which wait to serve, I call giglets.
When capacity rises to the occasion, I will call them terlets.
That's just me.
Such use by others is discouraged.
As you were.

Posted by: Rad | September 9, 2007 4:49 PM | Report abuse

How about I suggest a new term, just to confuse the world a bit more? I reckon "memory dongle" is a good one. I like the way it sounds dirty without ever being.

Posted by: JP Strauss | September 10, 2007 12:53 AM | Report abuse

Well, two of you noticed the post and while I call those flash sticks an 'executive drive,' my observations address the PRUDISH REMOVAL by the WaPo of the 'pictures' associated with the posts.

They have also blanked the posting history with the new system and while many folks posting comments previously were aware that one could recommend their own comments, just look at all the comments with [0] recommendations now.

To get to the poster's bio, in the past one clicked on the 'picture' but now one must figure out that this option is retained by clicking on the 'name' itself.

Of course, all existing biographies have been blanked also and since Google no longer picks up on the WaPo comments, the WaPo might consider leaving the last post -- first seen and restoring the rest of the previous format.

Posted by: BRUCEREALTOR@GMAIL.COM | September 10, 2007 1:25 AM | Report abuse

Just one other observation for the folks with 'the cute remarks' about how the WaPo would do 'fine without me,' if you clicked on my bio previously to the 'GREAT RESET' you saw [9] recommendations on the top of the bio page.

Most bio pages had [0], some had up to [3] a very few had [5] and one that I noticed had [7].



Posted by: BRUCEREALTOR@GMAIL.COM | September 10, 2007 1:41 AM | Report abuse

****"I call it a USB flash drive not because it's correct, really, but because everyone understands what I mean when I say it." ****

Isn't that what language is about... making sure everyone understands what you mean?

I teach a college-level tech course, and I tell everyone that they need to get a "flash drive, thumb drive, whatever you want to call it" and I show them the two hanging around my neck. I tell them what stores in our small town sell them, and the next class they call come back with one. No lack of communication here.

Posted by: Victoria | September 10, 2007 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Flash Key

Posted by: David | September 10, 2007 10:58 AM | Report abuse

I think Memory Stick is the favourite in England

Posted by: Michael Padgett | September 10, 2007 10:59 AM | Report abuse

memory thingy

Posted by: BILL | September 10, 2007 11:02 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: Arturo | September 10, 2007 11:10 AM | Report abuse

It's flash drive by consensus

Posted by: notthe600 | September 10, 2007 11:17 AM | Report abuse

It plugs into the USB port and holds data, so why not
USB memory stick??
As I tell folks its not a drive and it dont jump.

Posted by: Bob Henderson | September 10, 2007 11:42 AM | Report abuse


thank you - now i know what BIOS stands for! [memory stick sounds good to me!"]

Posted by: inge | September 10, 2007 11:44 AM | Report abuse

It appears that it's time for "drive" to go the way of "dial" (as in a phone) and not mean exactly what it used to, but still correspond to whatever it is that does the same function in a newer context. As noted by the middle schooler above: they show up where the other "drives" do, ergo, they're drives.

Posted by: Zeke | September 10, 2007 11:51 AM | Report abuse

How about "Zip Stick"?
The boys would think of "Dipstick" and the girls "Lipstick"
It sounds a reasonable name to me as the storage device is fast and efficient.
It's the sort of thing that some overpaid advertising executive would come up with at an exhorbitant price!!

Posted by: Tristram Pyewipe-Stuttington | September 10, 2007 11:54 AM | Report abuse

Seems "dongle" was always used to interface between two things, not the end device itself. Such as a wire to connect a PCMCIA network card to an Ethernet cable, or a fax/modem card to a phone jack. Some security dongles were attached to allow the insertion of an authenticating device.

Since most things have gone to plain USB, I don't have many dongles in my life, with the exception of a Sony digital camera adapter - it's USB on one end, proprietary Sony on the other.

I'm a fan of the term flash drive.

Posted by: Roberto | September 10, 2007 11:57 AM | Report abuse

In the end "flash drive" will win out. The USB will be dropped as its too much to say and everyone knows they go into a USB port.

While "drive" may be technically wrong, it has come to mean a thingy for storing data. I liked thumb drive. A client of mine calls it the stick.

It must an interesting social psych study as to why these things have not settled on a single name in all this time. Pretty unusual.

Posted by: Michael Horowitz | September 10, 2007 12:56 PM | Report abuse

USB key for me...

Posted by: slar | September 10, 2007 1:15 PM | Report abuse

When I was in Iraq with the Army, we usually used the term "thumb drive" (although when I used the term, sometimes I'd get asked "What is that?"). I've seen "jump drive" used in print literature, usually in connection with course descriptions or in print ads, but I rarely hear people use that term.

Posted by: Pattie A. | September 10, 2007 2:08 PM | Report abuse

In my office (I'm in university administration) they are called "data shuttles". I like this for the transportation-inspired idea of conveying something from one place to another, and for the much more obscure association with weaving or tatting (conveying thread through other thread). I always enjoy the hidden intersections of high-tech terminology with low!

Posted by: Akosua | September 10, 2007 3:18 PM | Report abuse

I think the 'Key' association comes from 'Encryption Key', just on the outside chance you might find 256 bits are hard to remember on a bad day you can plug the thingy in and prove you are you, as if the celulite and the thousand mile stare weren't enough proof.

Posted by: GTexas | September 10, 2007 5:12 PM | Report abuse

Quite interesting discussion :-) I think it simply doesn't matter how you call them unless they are fully functional. By the way in Poland we call them "pendrives". Even IT professionals do! However I would rather call them "Memorex" (acronym for Memory Extension)

Posted by: Marrog27 | September 10, 2007 5:47 PM | Report abuse

How about Flash Stick?

Posted by: Francis Gorecki | September 10, 2007 6:34 PM | Report abuse

My fellow techs and I actually hashed this out not long ago because we'd had several incidents of confusion that day. We settled on "thumb drive" for the following reasons:

1. "USB drive" gets confused with external hard drives like the Western Digital Passports or the Seagate FreeAgents.

2. "Memory Stick" gets confused with RAM (or as one tech said, "The stick Mama used on my butt when I forgot something!").

3. "Flash drive" gets confused with the new Solid State Drives (SSD - there goes another naming choice!)that replace hard drives.

4. "Key"/"Dongle" and the like refer to specific devices and generate more blank looks.

5. "Widget" has been co-opted for desktop mini-programs.

All in all, we decided the least-confusing name for the thing is "thumb drive" [it IS a drive; in computers, any storage device is known as a drive - spinning disks not required. CF: RAMdrive, tape drive, et al]

Posted by: DeanR | September 10, 2007 6:52 PM | Report abuse

These devices is known as "Cosmic Continuity Vessels for Portage of Memories" and in Soviet Russia, CCVPM put Data in YOU!

Posted by: Vasily Getchuroksof | September 10, 2007 7:17 PM | Report abuse

Why all the jargon? Can we simply call it a Portable Storage Device (PSD)?

Posted by: CSLee | September 10, 2007 9:25 PM | Report abuse

call it simply USB. just as we say USA

Posted by: viswa | September 11, 2007 2:56 AM | Report abuse

A friend gave me one of these devices recently. It has a hole in the removable cover, and he said you can put it on a chain and wear it around your neck. So I suggest we call it a "Bling Drive", yes?

Posted by: JakesFriend | September 11, 2007 9:00 AM | Report abuse

Great article, Rob! You posed a great question, got lots of people to respond, and no one got mad at each others comments. Please, please find an intern or gofer to tabulate the votes. :)

Posted by: Tom Rosania | September 11, 2007 3:12 PM | Report abuse

The "flash" part is correct. I prefer "flash drive" to "flash stick" for a few reasons, some obvious and some not.

Posted by: Ken Fiester | September 11, 2007 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Y'all have amazed me here--I was sure that a post on computing vocabulary, sent up late in the morning on a Friday, was going to draw 5 comments at best. Instead, we've got people chiming in with perspectives from England, Argentina, Poland, Tanzania and even Iraq!

Let me see if I can draw some conclusions from the comments posted so far:

* I'll concede the point about "drive" being a good-enough noun for this type of hardware.

* Keeping "USB" in the name makes some sense, since the thing that makes a USB flash thing... a USB flash thing is the presence of said connector at one end.

* But we do need some way to distinguish them from larger USB-connected drives that use traditional magnetic disks.

* Likewise, "flash drive" is soon going to invite confusion as we start to see laptops that use flash memory as a primary storage mechanism.

* In that sense, "Thumb drive" describes the size and shape of these things better than "stick," "key drive" or "pen drive" (although I have gotten a working ballpoint pen that contained a USB, er, thumb drive in the aft third of its shaft).

* "USB thumb drive," or just "thumb drive"? Read that way, I'm not sure we need the "USB" at the start after all.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | September 11, 2007 6:23 PM | Report abuse

Over here in China, they're called something like U-disk (Iknow not a disk) but the Chines don't say disk they say U-pan or U-pie (one of those is -pan or pie- is disk the other is probably stick for all I know) anyway I just tell my students to bring a U-pan to class if they want copies of my power point - no make that copies of my Keynotes for study on their own.

Posted by: Charlie | September 11, 2007 8:23 PM | Report abuse

forgot to comment on the other names, flash, thumb, key etc. I agree USB it too much of a mouthful, hence U-[something] Although reading online I learned about thumb and key, those just don't seem related to the function. And although it's quick, transfers even with USB 2.0 are not a "flash"So i suggest we keep looking, maybe we'll be lucky and they go the way of floppy disks or diskettes... phased out in favor of some other technological wonder... in fact most of my students bring their MP3 to class get copies of my notes.

Posted by: Charlie | September 11, 2007 8:29 PM | Report abuse

I like "data shuttle" - bring back Jacquard! But "bling drive" is positively brilliant. The ultimate in geek bling, measured in bytes instead of karats.

Posted by: Judith | September 11, 2007 9:41 PM | Report abuse

Bagit or Saveit or Copyit or Stuffit
And even the historic Thermofax...but that is a trade name.

Posted by: DaveD | September 12, 2007 12:17 AM | Report abuse

The kids at my son's school in Australia call them "nerd sticks" because when they first appeared only the nerds had them.

Posted by: heyjohn | September 12, 2007 5:17 AM | Report abuse

In Brazil, 99% of the people refer to it as "Pen Drive", no matter what it looks like. I thought it was a commonly used name worldwide, but now I see that it must be something regional.

Posted by: Arthurv | September 13, 2007 2:32 PM | Report abuse

I read all the posts.
Not popular, but I like the name "flash" the best. And if the name ends up "flash drive" or "flash memory," flash will be the shorted addressing term.
"Hand me that flash, I need to copy this." This works well...

Posted by: Dan | September 13, 2007 3:38 PM | Report abuse

with a bit free association i see a packet of 5-stick wrigley gum when i look at my flash. that's about the size of it!

Posted by: inge | September 13, 2007 6:09 PM | Report abuse

with a bit of free association i see a packet of 5-stick wrigley gum when i look at my flash. that's about the size of it!

Posted by: inge | September 13, 2007 6:10 PM | Report abuse

How bout USBM, because that where I dump my data. But for polite company USB-Memory

Posted by: Group W | September 17, 2007 2:20 PM | Report abuse

I work in I.T. for a Fortune 500 company and among the 50-ish people in our dept, most use "jump drive", but a lot use "thumb drive".

Posted by: lala | October 13, 2007 4:37 AM | Report abuse

I know I'm late with my suggestion, but here goes anyway: "data stick"
I don't have one yet but have been pricing them locally and will shortly put my favorite music on one and my important documents, family photos on others.

Posted by: cager38 | October 13, 2007 2:42 PM | Report abuse

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