Outsiders and hard drives

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It's a bit of a mystery how and why "outsiders" (wàidìrén 外地人) are referred to by Shanghainese as "hard disks / drives" (yìngpán 硬盘).

Intrigued, I asked around, and here are some of the replies I received.

The term YP (yìngpán 硬盘) was common on the Kuāndài shān 宽带山 (KDS) bulletin boards back in the day. The explanation I'd always heard was that they, like hard drives, were merely installed here rather than being of here. Couldn't say if that's the actual origin or just a later folk etymology.

This comes from a native of Shanghai:

…the term "hard disk" in Chinese that is used by native Shanghainese in reference to "outsiders": the term is 硬盘 (lit., "hard plate / tray", but here in reference to computer disk). The exact pronunciation of this term in Shanghainese is ngang-boe (oe as it is pronounced in French) — I'm a native of Shanghai. By the way, the traditional term in reference to someone who is ignorantly stupid is "foreign tray / dish" (洋盘, pronounced yang-boe).

He was commenting on this paragraph from an article in Caixin:

A few days ago, a friend of ours in Shanghai told us about a new label that young Internet users in the large eastern city are using to refer to people who move to town from other parts of the country. The label is "hard disk." It is a play on the ordinary term for people who move to town from other parts of China – "wai di ren" – and the initials of the hard disk company Western Digital.

It would appear from this that the notion of wàidìrén 外地人 ("outsider") is now doubly connected with "hard disk" in Shanghai parlance, once through the sound of 硬盘 itself and once through the initials of Western Digital, one of the world's largest manufaturers of hard disk drives.

As to how and why this game of cat and mouse all played out on the internet, in other words, why was there a necessity for such arcane ways of referring to outsiders in Shanghainese, Kaiser Kuo posted a question about this on Quora and got a great answer:

There is a famous forum in Shanghai named KDS (宽带山 [Broadband Mountain]), and there Shanghainese used the word 外地人 ("outsider") to talk about their discontent with them, whereupon that word was blocked.

Shanghainese turned to use WDR (the initials of the pinyin of 外地人), it was then blocked.

Then Shanghainese divided W into VV, so the new word became VVDR, and it was blocked.

YDR (Y = 外) replaced the VV by Shanghainese and it was blocked.

Then Shanghainese began to use 西部数据人 (Western Digital [a brand of hard disk] People=WDR), and it was blocked.

Finally, they find a good word 硬盘 (YP), which derives its meaning from Western Digital people. And since KDS is a forum talking about PC, if the word 硬盘 is blocked, the forum is a dead one, so the word 硬盘 was not blocked.

This account reverses the sequence from the initial use of yìngpán 硬盘 ("hard disk") and later adoption of W(estern) D(igital) as a euphemism or code word for wàidìrén 外地人 ("outsider") proposed by my Shanghai informant to its opposite:  the initial use of W(estern) D(igital) and the subsequent substitution by yìngpán 硬盘 ("hard disk").  No matter which came first, it's no secret that Shanghnese natives are not fond of the hordes of outsiders who flood their city every day.  (They always tell me when we're walking down Nanjing Road or other major thoroughfare that by far the majority of people we can see on the street are not from Shanghai.)  On the other hand, I hear the same kinds of complaints about wàidìrén 外地人 ("outsiders") from Beijingers and Hong Kongers.

[Thanks to D. Pan, Kellen Parker, and Brendan O'Kane]


  1. Laura Morland said,

    July 5, 2015 @ 1:05 am

    Fascinating anecdote!

    But for those of us who don't know any Chinese language, could you please explicate the last paragraph of the Quora response?

    "Finally, they find a good word 硬盘 (YP), which derives its meaning from Western Digital people… and the word 硬盘 was not blocked."

    How does 硬盘 (YP) "derive its meaning from Western Digital people"? Apparently it means "hard disk," but that seems a bit of a stretch to me. In fact, I'd love to see an independent confirmation of the Quora responder's historical account.

    Finally, how likely would it be that 硬盘 have ended up being the name for "foreigner" if (洋盘 weren't already in use as "the traditional term in reference to someone who is ignorantly stupid". That is, the fact that 盘 is both an old word (meaning "tray") and a new one (meaning "hard disk") seems to be the key factor leading to the neologism 硬盘.

    Perhaps the conflation of wàidìrén 外地人 with the initials WDR is either a supporting element, or simply a coincidence. (How well known is "Western Digital" really? Is it ubiquitous in China, like IBM used to be in the States? If not, it seems a bit unlikely….)

  2. K Chang said,

    July 5, 2015 @ 4:24 am

    Hard drive in Chinese is either 硬碟 (hard saucer/dish) or 硬盤 (hard plate/pan). It's shortened from 硬式磁碟機 (hard type magnetic saucer machine) as opposed to floppy disk.

    The WD link though, felt too much like a retcon / retronym.

    But basically Chinese are infamous for attempting to get around the censors using allusions, rhymes, sound-alikes, initials, and so on. That's why there had been a lot of "Word Inquisition" 文字獄 under corrupt rulers in China.

  3. Matt said,

    July 5, 2015 @ 7:58 pm

    Laura: Western Digital is a brand of hard-disk manufacturers. So this speech community got to "Western Digital" via sound + orthography, based on the initials of waidi (外地), but the following leap, from "Western Digital" to "hard disk," was a semantic one.

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