On September 12 2019, Twitter user Benjamin Molineaux shared the following tweet and image, suggesting that the common terms “uppercase” and “lowercase” originated with the standard physical storage of typesetting equipment:
One day later, a screenshot of the tweet was shared to Facebook. Alongside an illustration of two “cases” holding uppercase and lowercase letters, it read:
Kids today: “you mean the ‘save’ button represents some kind of physical storage disk? OMG”
Me today: “you mean ‘upper case’ and ‘lower case’ refer to the physical cases where printers kept their letters? OMG”
In the tweet’s first portion, Molineaux referenced an idea that is likely as old as humanity itself: that young people “today” are unaware of the real-world origins or previous connotations of certain words or phrases and are thus essentially ignorant of the new technology they so favor — in this case that a popular icon shows a floppy disk or a hard disk. This claim may have originated with a very small survey done in 2013 to produce an infographic and to drive interest into the survey’s sponsor.
When The Verge examined the meme in a critical 2017 piece, it noted that the claim typically appeared without anyone reporting that they had experienced the purported ignorance of disks in young people firsthand. That was based on a viral October 2017 tweet reiterating the idea that “kids today” don’t know what the “save icon” represents:
The Verge further noted that the joke seemed to begin circulating in 2014, shortly after the above-linked 2013 infographic was created, and that it was not likely that it was based in widespread youthful ignorance of floppy disks:
Old iterations of the floppy disk meme are not hard to find. The oldest instance I’ve been able to dig up, circa a forum post in January 2014, comes from an unidentified web comic … The world is not full of clueless children repeating the same awed observation, though. It’s more likely that adults are just regurgitating an old joke. Floppy disks are dead technology; that’s hardly a new revelation. “I’m not sure why this meme resonates so much,” Gross says, “but I think it’s maybe because people have nostalgia about this time, and also it’s funny how the icon on the desktop survived so long after the floppy died.”
It was that general joke (apparently rooted in a 2013 infographic) upon which Molineaux built, in essence turning the same accusation of ignorance back on the people spreading the “save icon” meme in the first place. Molineaux suggested that the widely-used terms “upper case” and “lower case” stemmed from the dying art of typesetting, and the same people presuming young folk were unaware of disks were themselves unaware of the “case” etymology.
At first glance, supporting claims also appeared to be relatively new and not necessarily authoritative. The origin of upper- and lower-case in typesetting appears on “fun facts” blogs with some frequency, which on occasion might pass off urban legends as a “today I learned” or “today years old” knowledge tidbit without a broader search for the age of the claim or its accuracy. These often referenced the “Type case” Wikipedia article with a 2008 citation, making it appear possible that internet folk etymology influenced the claim. Few sources advancing the claim seemed to have checked further than Wikipedia.
Referring originally to two type cases positioned on an angled stand, the case containing the capital letters being higher and further away from the compositor.
The viral tweet’s claim is accurate. According to the definitive Oxford English Dictionary, the words “uppercase” and “lowercase” originally referred to two physical type cases positioned on an “angled stand,” with capital letters placed further away from typesetters. The “lower case” of letters contained lowercase letters.