The first time I saw our weekly gatherings referred to in print as "open mics", I was certain it was a typo. Since then, it's become increasingly clear to me that my preference for "mike" as the colloquial form of "microphone" is decidedly in the minority. Nonetheless, I have remained steadfastly opposed to "mic", and I remain convinced that the majority is, to put it bluntly, wrong. But up until this point, I had resigned myself to stewing in silence.

However, in the spring of 2002 I received an email suggesting that I had misspelled "mic", which got my blood boiling. Upon a moment's reflection, it seemed to me that there was probably an awfully good argument against "mic", and since I happen to have a Ph.D. in linguistics, I thought I'd finally try to put my stake through the heart of this particular beast.

What's the problem?

English is kind of a mongrel language; it's picked up a bunch of stuff from its direct Germanic ancestors, but also been influenced tremendously by the French spoken by the Norman conquerors. As a result, the spelling of English is rather bizarre.

What's important about the spelling here is the correspondence between letters and sounds. In order to make the discussion clear, I need to adopt some conventions. I'll write letters in double quotes; this is what you actually write and read. I'll write sounds between slashes, which is a convention from linguistics; this is what you say and hear. (Real linguists transcribe sounds using the International Phonetic Alphabet, but I'm pretty sure your computer doesn't have that font :-).) Some languages, like Spanish, have very strict letter-to-sound correspondences; in English, however, sometimes it appears that anything goes.

For instance, there's the chestnut which suggests that the word fish could have been spelled ghoti, because of the /f/ sound realized by "gh" in enough, the /i/ sound realized by "o" in women, and the /sh/ sound realized by "ti" in nation. That is, there are a number of letters and letter combinations which can correspond to multiple sounds (e.g., the letter "c" can have a /k/ sound as in can or an /s/ sound as in lice), and a number of sounds can be realized by multiple letters or letter combinations (e.g., the /sh/ sound can be realized by the letter combinations "sh" as in shut, or "ti" as in nation). So it's really hard to write rules about how English is spelled, based on how it's pronounced.

Now, it should be clear that all the sequences in between the slashes are always pronounced the same way. That's how we can talk precisely about pronunciation. So if a vowel, like "i", can be pronounced in multiple ways, we need an unambiguous way of representing each of them. Let's say that the word lick is pronounced /lik/, and the word like is pronounced /li:k/. That is, /i/ without a colon will always be a "short I" in our sounds, and /i:/ will always be a "long I".

So now, we can describe the problem. The word mic, as a colloquial form of microphone, appears to violate an obvious spelling rule of English. It appears that every other one-syllable word in English which ends in "ic" is pronounced /ik/, not /i:k/: Bic, hic (the transcription of the sound a drunk makes), pic (short for picture), sic, tic, Vic. This is actually a more general rule, which I'll call the long vowel "e" rule; in English, most of the time, if what we usually call a "long" vowel appears in the last syllable of a word, and is followed by a consonant, the word ends in "e", and if the vowel is "short", there's no final "e": bit vs. bite, win vs. wine, quit vs. quite.

But wait, you say. Didn't I point out that English has unreliable letter-to-sound correspondences? If that's the case, rules are made to be broken, right? So what's the big deal about mic?

Four reasons that mic is wrong

Well, since you asked, I'll tell you. I have four reasons to believe that mic is just wrong. Two of them are really good, and one of them is so-so, and one of them is just plain silly. I'll start with the weak ones and work my way up.

Reason 1: Poets prefer it

This issue is not unique to us folkies; the poets have the same problem. The poets seem to be more organized than we, because they've already voted, and mike wins.

OK, that was silly.

Reason 2: mike is older

If you look in the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest citation for mic as a colloquial form of microphone is 1961. On the other hand, mike is first attested in 1927, and continues to be used (by me, among other people). So in terms of longevity, mic is a brash upstart.

OK, that was weak.

Reason 3: mic really does break the rules

There's actually something special about mic; it's a shortened colloquial form. English has a whole lot of ways of creating new words (it's the largest language in the world by far in terms of vocabulary). But when these new words are created, they are very, very seldom created as exceptions. That is, the fact that the letter "o" in women has the sound /i/ doesn't make it OK to create brand new words which have the same sound correspondence; that just isn't what "o" is supposed to sound like, and it's an exception for historical reasons. When new words are formed, they almost always follow the common rules.

Let's take this category of words, for instance: shortened colloquial forms. In most cases, they're just chopped; the spelling of the remaining chunk is identical to the spelling of the corresponding chunk of the original word, and the pronunciation of the remaining chunk is identical to the pronunciation of the corresponding chunk of the original word. Here are a few of these:

  • tarp
  • doc
  • croc
  • tux
  • vet
  • Sometimes, because the remaining chunk is unaccented in the original word, the vowel is pronounced more clearly (the technical term is unreduced), or the accent shifts. Here are a few of these:

  • prelim
  • semi
  • rep (short for reputation, representative)
  • ref
  • The interesting cases arise when chopping off the word would result in something which isn't pronounced the same. Two things happen in this case. The first thing that can happen is that the pronunciation changes. Here are a few of those:

  • spec (short for specification)
  • mayo (short for mayonnaise)
  • bro (short for brother; it's a completely different vowel)
  • expat (short for expatriate; the vowel in the short form is short, but it corresponds to a long vowel in the original)
  • deli (last vowel is longer)
  • bio
  • There are a few others. (20070927: note that "expat" and "mayo" actually match their long forms in the UK.)

    The second thing that can happen is that the spelling changes to match the pronunciation. Here are a few of those:

  • Prez (short for President)
  • rez (short for reservation)
  • fridge
  • fave
  • biz
  • cuke (short for cucumber)
  • lube
  • sarge (short for sergeant)
  • Coke (short for Coca-Cola)
  • nuke (short for nuclear weapon)
  • Again, there are a few others.

    Notice that every one of these which has a long vowel (fave, cuke, lube, Coke, nuke) adds an "e" on the end, where there was no "e" in the original word, in order to indicate that the vowel is long. In other words, when the new word is formed, the long vowel "e" rule is followed. The only exception I can find is mic.

    To be fair, there are some shortened colloquial forms which could be argued to violate normal spelling rules. I've found only four candidates:

  • Chevy: one might argue that it should be "Chevvy" if the vowel is short, but it's possible that the relatively rare sequence "evy" is supposed to be a short vowel in English, as seen in the word bevy.
  • phys ed: one might argue that this should be pronounced /fi:z/, but who knows how "phys" would be pronounced if it weren't a shortened form.
  • hi-res: one could argue that this should be spelled with a "z", but we have contrasting examples in gas (itself a shortened form) and as; the plural -s and third-person present tense singular -s ending don't count for the purposes of this discussion, for reasons that are way too complicated to get into.
  • veg
  • Of these, as you can see, only veg is a really good example, and it's a doozy. A final "g" is always, always hard in English. The word veggie is even worse, since double consonants are always hard in English no matter where they appear. Note, though, that it's a double consonant because it's using a spelling change to preserve the pronunciation of the vowel; vegie would be a long "e". (Update (11/6/04): One of my correspondents points out that "gg" is soft in English in a lot of situations, many of them borrowed from Italian: Reggie, arpeggio, DiMaggio, Caravaggio. Now that I think about it, it's a lot like "cc" in chicken cacciatore and cappuccino. Those wacky palatals.)

    But that's only one counterexample. In every other case, if the pronunciation would end up different, either the pronunciation changes to match the spelling, or the spelling changes to match the pronunciation. mic is just plain anomalous.

    Reason 4: mic is even worse as a verb

    As a noun, mic is bad enough, but at least you can make the plural mics, assuming you're willing to continue tolerating the letter-to-sound violation. However, the word pronounced /mi:k/ is also a verb, which means "to amplify using a microphone". But the problem with mic becomes even worse with verbs, because it introduces yet another letter-to-sound violation, one which I know of no existing exceptions to.

    The problem is that the past tense of verbs typically ends in "ed", and the progressive in "ing". Both of these suffixes start with vowels, and "c" followed by "i" or "e" is always pronounced /s/. If you want to preserve the hard "c", you have to double the consonant; so the past tense of sic is sicced, and the progressive is siccing. But doubled consonants also indicate short vowels. So how do you spell the past and progressive forms of mic?

  • "I'm micing the drums." (appears to preserve the vowel length but lose the hard "c"; cf. icing)
  • "I miced the drums." (ditto; cf. iced)
  • "I'm miccing the drums." (appears to preserve the hard "c" but lose the vowel length)
  • "I micced the drums." (ditto)
  • (Now, to be fair, I have found at least one brave soul out there on the Web who spells it micing, but that doesn't mean that it's a good idea.) On the other hand, mike is perfectly straightforward, because it obeys the default spelling rules:

  • "I'm miking the drums."
  • "I miked the drums."
  • So for sheer usefulness and consistency, mike wins, because the default spelling rules of English dovetail with verbal inflections in such a way to make the problem with mic that much worse. (Update (1/14/05): a yet-to-be-enlightened correspondent has unwittingly pointed out yet another unfortunate consequence of this heinous spelling: attendees at these events end up being open mickers. Please, people. Stop the insanity.)

    Summing up

    Most likely, the people who favor mic do so because they believe it would be a mistake to change the spelling, since it's a shortened form of microphone. However, we've seen that when a word is chopped, there's a strong tendency to make the result obey the default spelling rules of English, either by changing the pronunciation to match the spelling, or by changing the spelling to match the pronunciation. Since I don't know of anyone who wants to pronounce mic /mik/, we really ought to be spelling it mike. The variant mic is an odious offense to comprehensible pronunciation.

    Updates

    It would be wrong of me to fail to honor the comments I've received so far.

    5/15/02

    One correspondent suggested that "mic." started its life as an abbreviation for "microphone" on circuit diagrams. It is listed as such in the Dictionary of abbreviations and acronyms used in broadcasting and telecommunications. He also comments:

    As so often proves to be the case, I believe our friend James O'Brien may have the definitive answer. I have long admired it, but not quite felt that I had the ability to pull it off. Using your symbology, he spells /mi:k/ as stage.

    Another correspondent notes that English has a number of alternative spellings, so "mic, miking, miked" doesn't bother him so much. He must be more tolerant than I.

    Finally, someone else wondered why I didn't make note of the obvious pairs bicycle/bike and tricycle/trike. The reason is that these pairs involve both a spelling change (cf. cucumber/cuke) and a pronunciation change (cf. specification/spec). So these examples are a little more complicated. However, they do clearly support the tendency for English abbreviations to respect previously existing pronunciation rules.

    7/6/02

    Just recently, someone wrote me who was deeply aggrieved at my assassination of mic. In the course of corresponding, it occurred to me that there were a couple clarifications worth making.

    First, there's no sense in which the fact that mike has the same spelling and pronunciation as another existing word (i.e., the familiar proper name Mike) disqualifies it from being used in this context. There are many, many accidental homonyms in english (bank, etc.). In this specific situation (the coinage of a new word), there are almost certainly examples where such new words have duplicated the spelling and pronunciation of an existing word (e.g., the brand name Coke, which is also a shortened form).

    Second, my correspondent suggested that as a linguist, I shouldn't be making up rules. This is a point worth considering. For example, the "rule" of not splitting an infinitive was just plain made up, sometime in the 18th or 19th century. However, there's a difference between the "no splitting an infinitive" rule and rules about letter-to-sound correspondences. The latter have real value, because it means that someone who knows the language can read a word and know how it's pronounced. Now, English doesn't have strict and exceptionless rules of this sort (unlike Spanish, as I mentioned above). My point, rather, is that the letter-to-sound correspondences in English are already a mess, due to its mongrel status, so why make it worse by coining neologisms which create new violations?

    5/29/03

    A correspondent writes:

    Musicians know it's "mic" and not "mike", which, right or wrong, doesn't refer to a microphone in our world. Trust me, this is a long educated statement on my part with LOTS of asking people for a LONG time and playing both sides of the argument.

    However, I think "word" & "language" people such as yourself prefer "mike" which is ridiculous to musicians, but seems to be preferred by outsiders such as writers and literary types.

    Let's take this one paragraph at a time. Certainly, up to this point I've been arguing from principle, and I haven't yet commented on the actual statistics (and to linguists, it's genuine usage that's supposed to count, which makes me a heretic on the "open mike" issue). A Google search shows the following hits: about 239,000 for "open mic", and about 92,000 for "open mike". A quick survey of the first few pages of each suggests that there's no obvious difference in the ratio between musical events and non-musical events. This crude analysis suggests that about a quarter of references to the musical events in question are "open mike" rather than "open mic". A distinct minority, no doubt; but I never claimed that the world agrees with me. After all, one of the reasons for this particular tirade is that the world appears to have gotten it wrong. Frankly, I'm encouraged that the minority appears to be as large as it is. So my correspondent seems to have a skewed sample.

    What about the contention that it's only word and language people who prefer the "open mike" spelling? Leaving aside the fact that some of those word and language people (a group of which I'm apparently a member) are musicians too (or, perhaps, the other way round), my correspondent may have a point here. By way of anecdotal evidence, I received a note from a good friend who's an accomplished musician and lyricist as well as a professional editor who wrote:

    Hi Sam! I just discovered (while looking up something in your open mike list) your admirable piece on the spelling of "open mike". (Kinda late, I know.) I'm glad you took up the cudgels on this issue--that "mic" drives me crazy. Bravo!

    So there may be something to that. Not that it matters.

    7/31/03

    The comments continue to pile in.

    Forwarded from my friends at openmikes.org:

    Hi!

    I didn't see a space for me to share in this business about "MIC" versus "MIKE" ( I will stick to the former of the two), but thought it funny that a man so bent on saying it is MIKE spelled "Damn it" "DAMMIT".

    Damn it!

    This is an entertaining point, and would be entirely fair, if it weren't for the fact that dammit is an attempt to fairly represent the pronunciation of damn it, while mic, by any reasonable examination, is not an attempt to fairly represent the pronunciation of the short form of microphone.

    This bears a little emphasis. As I point out, the problem with English orthography (as opposed to Spanish, for example) is that words are not necessarily spelled the way they're pronounced. Various people, for instance, George Bernard Shaw, have advocated phonetic spelling for English. Occasionally, a "phonetic" spelling of a word or phrase, which isn't spelled as it's pronounced, makes it into the written language; examples are dammit and gonna. But be honest: if you saw a new written word fic, how would you pronounce it? I'm willing to bet that nine people out of ten who haven't read this page would pronounce it /fik/, not /fi:k/. So in some sense, dammit is perhaps the best indication that a spelling like mic is a clear move in the wrong direction.

    From another openmikes.org reader:

    While driving home this evening, I was pondering the spelling of the alternate for microphone, lamenting that it doesn't make sense. By the weirdest of coincidences, I came across the essay on the issue. Linguistically, the argument for mike is very sound. There is one unfortunate side to all this. When it comes to technical terms, the "proper" usage is determined by the technical community, not the English scholars. In the fraternity of professional audio engineers, the winner is "mic". Sorry, you have live with it.

    Well, yes, I have to live with it, but let's see what the fraternity of provessional audio engineers has to say, shall we? A search on "mike recording microphone" at Google yields about 40,000 hits; a search on "mic recording microphone" yields about 103,000. That's just about the same ratio as for "open mike" vs. "open mic", as I pointed out earlier. So while I'm definitely in the minority (which is why I wrote this page in the first place), the professional audio community is pretty much the same as the music community in terms of how many favor the wrong spelling :-).

    And finally, from a local supporter:

    The longevity of "mike" over" mic" is not a weak reason, it is historical common practice. And the poets vote should count for something at least, esp. as they are so often guilty of poetic license.

    Thanks for taking this up, victory is ours!!!! (ha ha ha) It has confused me for ages, made no sense, and made me question my sanity. But as a nontechie, I attributed the weirdness to the techie input and culture.

    I think the mad laughter is a nice touch. And we techies (yep, I'm one too) have a lot to answer for.

    9/18/03

    A correspondent writes:
    Subject: One mike at a time
    To: sam@sambayer.com

    The battle rages. We've taken back another piece of morphologic territory. Waterstreet cafe in Fall River now lists its "Thursday night acoustic open mike" with that spelling, eschewing the techno-mod version.

    10/10/03

    Another correspondent writes:
    To: sam@sambayer.com
    Subject: Mi [c | k] ing

    Hi Sam,

    Great article "Mike Dammit". I'm a techie currently undertaking a sound engineering course and this week's topic was microphone placement. My homework was simply to write up said topic. Being a very poor artist and a self-confessed lazy tyke (tike? ummm... tic? :-) I wanted to steal some little graphics of other people's microphone placement and comment on them. Where better than Google?

    My results indicate that there are a few more reasons why 'mike' should be used instead of 'mic', despite my engineering background and the fact that it annoys my tutor no end when I use mike:

    1. Typing "micing examples" into google.co.uk returned not only "about 219" results but also a suggestion of "Did you mean: miking examples". Hurrah for Google!
    2. Clicking Google's amended suggestion then returned "about 1,140" results, so surely us mikies are in the majority now ;-)
    3. When writing up the results in Micro$oft Word, if I type "In order to mic up a drum kit..." I get a squiggly line under mic and the replacement suggestions are "mice" (?!), "mica", "mix", "mike" or "mace". Selecting "mike" removes the whiney underline and the (often laughable) grammar checker likes it too. I'm not saying that Micro$oft is right (as if!), but as it saves me the hassle of making a custom dictionary and teaching it an erroneous word then I'm all for it. Path of least resistance and all that.

    So there you have it. Technology may be on our side at last!

    11/11/03

    My first correspondent this month informs me that I'm famous.

    Hi, Sam. I didn't know until I saw a reference to the discussion in a pro audio magazine today* that you had taken up one of my former cudgels. I'm the erstwhile editor of the Boston Audio Society Speaker; I and my fellow editors have long crusaded for the "k" spellings, on all the grounds you mention. Count us as techies for linguistic sanity, and me as both techie and musician.

    I believe the history is important here. The original "c" form was a simple truncation, made for lack of what engineers call real estate: Audio mixers need high-sensitivity inputs for dynamic transducers putting out around 10 millivolts, and also for amplified components (300 mV for consumer gear or 1.4 V for pro gear). In other words, MICROPHONE or LINE inputs. The second word fits but the first doesn't and was truncated, so the universal stencil says "MIC/LINE". (You're really squeezed for space, so a three-letter abbreviation is better, and you don't want to say "LIN" when the whole word takes just one more. "MIKE" is longer and "MIK" is more confusing that "MIC" for that particular purpose.) The rest of the world of engineers (first) and musicians (later, when musicians began to use electronics as a matter of course) are guilty only of back-formation in using the "c" form as a new word. That doesn't make them right, however.

    I say keep up the good fight. The "k" forms are the ones that make sense to those of us who care about language -- a group that includes people from all walks of life.

    *ProAV, October, 2003, page 12 (www.proavmagazine.com). They've gone over to the dark side; I assume the culprit is editor is Mark Mayfield.

    And now, another vote for "outnumbered but right":

    I just wanted you to know that I totally agree with your argument. But I look at it this way. In 1972, most people voted for Richard Nixon. That didn't make it right, but it stuck! :)

    On the other hand, not the most optimistic forecast...

    2/3/04

    And the venues begin to fall:
    I can totally see your point. From now on, I'll be referring to the Mozaic Room gig as an open "mike". Who says folkies obsess over tiny details? This is important stuff! Regards, Pete Schoonmaker
    Perhaps you can hear my evil laugh...

    2/26/04

    In this month's installment, we reassure a tortured soul who thought he was alone in the world:

    Last night I had typed in the phrase "why do people keep calling it mic instead of mike" in the Google search engine, and, lo and behold, I found your website! I am so relieved to know that there are others who share my irritation at the "mic" misspelling.

    I'm not a music professional, but I've been fiddling around with music and, consequently, microphones and mike stands, since the mid-1960's. It was never spelled "mic" in any of the catalogues that I ordered things from or on posters or signs or anything else that I can recall.

    I don't remember when I first ran into the "mic" thing, but it was so foreign to me that I didn't even know what it meant when I saw the sign promoting "open mic night", and said to the person I was with, "What is an open "mick"?

    I don't know what an open mick is, either. Anybody?

    11/6/04

    It's been a while, but when it rains, it pours. Three days ago, I had not one, not two, but three relieved supporters contact me, clearly a bastion of sanity in a wide world of chaos.

    Our first correspondent invokes the Lord:

    May almighty God bless you big time for your very sensible stand on the "mic" vs. "mike" issue. I couldn't agree with you more.
    I never imagined that good works would extend to grammatical polemicism, but frankly, I need all the cosmic credit I can get. It looks like this particular correspondence may lead to a radio interview on the subject; I'll keep you posted.

    Our second correspondent has more earthly concerns:

    I hope I'm not weighing in ridiculously late on the mike/mic controversy. I'm quarreling with my local newspaper over this.
    Think globally, act locally. I like this person's style.
    "Veggie" isn't really an exception -- the double 'g' followed by two vowels is soft in Reggie, arpeggio, DiMaggio, Caravaggio, etc. This actually bolsters your main point.
    And so it does. Into the screed it goes.
    As you noted, "mike" has a long and venerable tradition. The only attribution for 'mic' without a period in the OED is from an advertisement for a mixer. Aside from the earlier note that space is at a premium on mixing boards, we should remember that technical folk aren't always the most elegant practitioners of the English language.
    Take that, you technical folk. Wait, I'm technical folk.

    And here's initiative for you: our second correspondent wrote language columnist James J. Kilpatrick, who responded thusly:

    What to say? I was in and out of broadcasting for 60 years, first in radio and then in TV, and I never in my life wore a mic or spoke into a mic. I did a program here in Washington a few weeks ago, and they provided me with a microphone, known for short as a mike. There wasn't a mic to be seen.
    Don't fight it.

    11/20/04

    The campaign continues. My pal over at openmikes.org received the following note:
    Not to be a purist, but the spelling is open mic, not open mike.... And I don't think you're trying to be intentionally clever misspelling it since so many people do. I just thought it may be nice to have the correct spelling for such a nice, authoritative web site.
    After my pal pointed our correspondent to this very page, he received the following response:
    Thank you. I have to say I've been elucidated. I see the points for mike. I had also not considered that the past & progressive tenses, 'miced' & 'micing' change the 'k' sound to a 'c'. English is so complex. Thanks.
    All you "mic"ers out there: I'm like the Chinese water torture. Drip, drip, drip, and one morning you wake up and the whole world is miking. I'd be worried if I were you.

    12/12/04

    This month, William Bernthal, loyal reader from Noo Yawk City, reports a shocking exhibit of ignorance.
    I was gratified and relieved to come across your principled stand for the superiority of mike over mic. It should be obvious to anyone; alas, it isn't. I started an open mike a couple of months ago in Long Island City, Queens, and boldly named it "Open Mike L.I.C." I must report, however, that I have since felt compelled to yield to the annoying masses. I encountered resistance from club personnel and performers alike. Community is all, I've had to acknowledge, and I humbly aspire to take my place in the open-mic community, lame as it is from a copy-editing point of view. (There is no New York City open-mike community that I can detect.)

    I applaud your efforts on behalf of common sense in a misguided world. As for me, I may be an open-mic host for now, but someday, when I've come to wield the influence that is surely my due, I'll proudly assume the mantle of open-mike host again.

    Better yet, he proudly trumpets his contempt (as well as a link to our favorite screed) on his open mike page.

    All you folks in NYC ought to be ashamed of yourselves. Open your eyes! The truth is there to see. My correspondent and I stand proud, shoulder to shoulder, in defense of sane spelling.

    1/14/05

    Here's another odious consequence of the spelling that dare not speak its name: a yet-to-be-enlightened scribe recently referred in email to attendees at these events as open mickers. Oh, the humanity...

    In other news, my friend Rob Siegel reports:

    Oh hey before I forget I finally read your entire open mike rant. Very interesting. I was a "mic" user myself, but you've convinced me. Sam Bayer -- stamping out "mic" one stinking folksinger at a time.
    We don't actually stink, but I like the slogan nonetheless.

    3/30/05

    I'm beginning to get the feeling that some people are sending me entertaining comments just to see themselves immortalized. The latest:

    I got a kick out of your correspondent who said it's just the "word and language people" who prefer mike. What a loony idea, listening to "word and language people" when it comes to words and language! That's like heeding a physicist on matters of physics!

    Meanwhile, mike lives on wherever English is spoken. New Yorker magazine (Dec 20 & 24 issue) calls it an Open-Mike Night, adding the hyphen for the adjectival (is that a word?) form.

    [...]

    I've never seen the 'mic' spelling in the editorial (non-advertising) content of a respectable publication. My local paper uses it, but I don't count that as an exception. Mic is an abbreviation, used on electronic gear, where abbreviations don't use periods. If MIC is a word, then VOL is a word.

    Keep up the good work. Millions of Americans like mic, which is not proof of superiority. Mic is the Britney Spears of spellings.

    Ouch.

    7/9/05

    And now the poets are falling in line as well. They were early backers already (see reason 1 above), but here's a note from a newly-enlightened wordsmith:
    I'm a poet who hosts an open mike and have always thought that I ought to look up which spelling is correct. While on poetz.com I found a link to your article. You convinced me. "Open mike" it is.
    And if you're out in LA, and you're looking for a studio, why, how could you go wrong with Mike Recording, who, after all, were kind enough to write me and point out that they've been doing their bit for the cause for quite a while now?

    8/21/05

    This month's correspondent's tale of woe:

    Mr. Bayer:

    For me there are certain words that will always look like they should be pronounced differently than common usage dictates. It's been decades since I've been able to see the printed word "misled" and not secretly speak it to myself: "MY-zilled." I've done the same with "mic" ("mick" in my mythology) from about the time I first saw it written that way. Count me among your troops. "Mic?" Never!

    I like the note of defiance. Someday, perhaps, we'll take up arms against this sea of trouble, and it's good to know that the troops will be available. In other news, my friend Paul Roub, from openmikes.org, refers us to this admission of guilt.

    10/18/05

    My pal Jason Benjamin, talented sound engineer and Berklee student, writes with this heartwarming story:
    One of the people in my dorm is trying to start an open mike for my building and when I saw her poster had spelled it "mic" I corrected her and showed her your website. So thanks to you Berklee students now know it's "mike".
    Start 'em young, I say.

    2/5/06

    This is a beaut. One of my readers found our favorite atrocity in Esquire, not once, but twice. If any of you want a lovely example of how to fight the good fight, here's his letter to the magazine:

    Dear Esquire:

    I have been reading Esquire for decades (I discovered the Dubious Achievement Awards at an early age and branched out from there). My mom bought me a subscription every year starting when I was seventeen, until she passed away. This letter is not for publication; it concerns a minor point of style that drives me a little crazy - the shortening of microphone to mic, rather than mike.

    Admittedly, mic has gained some ground lately, but not normally in well-edited publications such as Esquire. Okay, some folks want to spell it that way. Isn't our language supposed to change? Some changes aren't for the better, and there are specific reasons mike is superior to mic:

    • There are no English words ending in ic that have a long vowel, so mic is inevitably read at first pass to rhyme with tic, sic, Vic, hic, etc. It's one of those little stumbles that slows down reading and makes it less enjoyable.
    • Words with a long vowel followed by a 'c' are always shortened to 'ike'. Thus cucumber, bicycle, Jacob, nuclear weapon, and Coca Cola become cuke, bike, Jake, nuke, and Coke. Do we really want to read cuc, bic, Jac, nuc, and Coc?
    • Mike is also a verb - 'We miked the drums last week- are we miking them tonight?' The problem with miced and micing is obvious. Monday Night Football solved this problem rather inelegantly in their feature "Mic'd Up." Yecchh.
    • There's something insouciantly American about shortening words into quick-reading little neologisms. WWII soldiers shortened General Purpose Vehicle to GP, then to Jeep, not to G'P or Gep. Mic, on the other hand, seems prissy and hypercorrect, sort of like shortening Nicholas to Nich.

    Mike has been with us for at least ninety years. Mic entered our language quite recently, as people misread the abbreviation on mixing boards and small electronics as the correct spelling of the short form (electronic gear doesn't use periods on abbreviations). The misspelling is understandably common among musicians and sound engineers. My dictionary does not include mic, though the OED includes it in its descriptive mode (tellingly, the citation is for mic/line in a mixing board advertisement). My spellchecker doesn't like mic, either.

    I have never seen mic in any major magazine or in wire service stories - among the other magazines I get, New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Newsweek all use mike.

    This is admittedly a trivial matter, but thanks for hearing me out.

    Your faithful subscriber,

    [...]

    Amen.

    2/24/06

    This just in! The "mike" campaign reaches Europe! One of my long-time folk pals writes, "I took the attached picture for you when I was in Berlin recently. I thought you'd want to see they're spelling it right over there."

    "Open mike": the international language of music.

    3/19/06

    I'm loving this one. A correspondent writes:
    I work in emergency rooms, and an interesting paralell to the open mic controversy occurs there. We suture lacerations in the ED, which is a very cumbersome thing to say or write. So, now I see and hear, 'do you need to sew that lac?' And yes, much to my consternation, it is pronounced lack. Took me 10 years and 3 different ED's to get used to it. Every now and then I see or hear that abbreviation and think to myself, 'How did I ever get used to that one?'

    7/22/06

    A correspondent misses the point:
    Much as I agree with the idea that "micing" something is wrong, simply for the reason that it looks silly, I think its still okay to abbreviate microphone to "mic". Since we are promoting an "open microphone" does it not make sense that we shorten to the form "mic" to save space on our promotional stuff? If the engineers can avoid using the period why should those who promote open mics not be allowed to do the same?

    I never said we couldn't abbreviate, people. Just use the right abbreviation. Who would deny me an "e" when the future of the language is at stake? Or is the letter "k" in short supply nowadays, like oil or, say, responsible public servants? I'm mystified.

    9/8/06

    Another correspondent gets it exactly backwards:
    I'll gladly give you "miked" and "miking", but there's just no need to change the "mic" in "open mic". It's an abbreviation and therefore perfectly valid. That's even before the obvious confusion with the informal version of "Michael", and the fact that it is already well established. I'm a hopeless pedant myself, but "sheeesh"!.

    You want pedantry, I'll give you pedantry. I'm going to rely on Wikipedia, Lord help me, because it appears to have some useful information on this topic. There are lots of different kinds of abbreviations: acronyms (sequences of initials pronounced like words, such as NATO), initialisms (sequences of initials pronounced as the individual letters, like HTML), syllabic abbreviations (such as Interpol for "international police"), portmanteaux (smoke + fog = smog) and apocope (shortened forms, such as Alex for Alexander). Wikipedia thinks there are others, but this list is already pushing it for me. In any case, mic is clearly a case of apocope.

    The Wikipedia, conveniently, has a list of apocopes in English. If you study it, you'll see, as I said, that mic is one of a very, very few which violate the generalizations of pronunciation as I outline them here. Most of the entries clearly show that either the pronunciation changes to fit the spelling, or the spelling changes to fit the pronunciation. A few more egregious examples that I didn't cite previously are natch, for naturally, and delish, for delicious. As for counterexamples, I do see civie as a short form for civilian, which Merriam-Webster claims is pronounced /cive:/. This I would never do. However, these examples are exceptionally few, and I stand by my contention that they're abominations.

    Second, I defy anyone to find another example of a word in English which changes the last consonant of its stem to accommodate an inflectional suffix (plural, past, progressive). The consonant can be doubled when the vowel is short (e.g. hidden as the past participle of hid), or if the suffix starts with a vowel like "i" or "e" which typically indicates the "soft" pronunciation of the previous consonant (e.g., sicced as the past tense of sic, or digging as the progressive of dig). But that's it. And, as I've argued extensively, both of these generalizations argue against mic.

    The case of the letter "c" is particularly unusual, because like the letter "g", it has two common pronunciations, but unlike the letter "g", there's another letter (namely "k") which corresponds unambiguously to its "hard" pronunciation. I think that's muddying the waters here. So let's try another long vowel, and "g" instead of "c". Take the word bugle. Let's say we want to create a slangy, shortened form of bugle, in its verbal sense (that is, "to play the bugle"). Here's the context: "I'm going to /byoog/ the night away with the Marine Corps band." All set? Now spell it.

    Done trying? What's wrong with "bug"? Looks like it's pronounced /bug/ - that can't be right. Maybe it'll look better in the past: "I buged the night away with the Marine Corps band." Nope, that looks awful too. I'm more than happy to entertain suggestions about how to get out of this predicament, but I think my point is clear. Long vowels have a distinctive spelling pattern in English which is seldom violated, and for good reason - it's a pattern we rely on to signal pronunciation.

    As for the confusion with Mike, I've already pointed out that Coke is a shortened form of Coca-Cola (and cocaine, for that matter, as Wikipedia reminds me) in spite of the existence of the word coke. The Wikipedia list also contains a number of other apocopes which are doublets of existing, well-established English words: fed (for federal), frank (for frankfurter), hash (for hashish) and a range of others. It also lists a number of apocopes which are ambiguous themselves among a number of words they're shortened forms of (e.g., doc for document or doctor). In other words, while my correspondent isn't worried about the spelling of mic, there are significant linguistic obstacles to violating the spelling generalizations; and while he is worried about introducing a spelling ambiguity, there's actually no limitation at all imposed by the language on that score.

    9/27/07

    When it rains, it pours. Nothing for a year, and now a virtual torrent.

    Let's begin with a plea for sanity:

    Just read your excellent piece on the barbarity that is the use of mic to replace mike. I recently wrote to William Safire about this, because I saw that mic had invaded the august pages of the New York Times. Today, it appears in the music column of the Wall Street Journal. Perhaps something can still be done.

    "Barbarity". That's a good word, there. As for whether there's any hope beyond the few victories we've already had, well, we can always hope.

    Next, we have a correspondent from across the pond:

    The only objection I had to your essay was your horribly US-centric idea of pronunciation. For instance, you write of changes in pronunciations:

    • mayo (short for mayonnaise, where the "y" is never pronounced)
    • expat (short for expatriate; the vowel in the short form is short, but it corresponds to a long vowel in the original)

    "Never"?! Here in the UK we proudly put 'y's in our mayonnaise. What's to say that the abbreviation didn't originate over here? Ditto 'expat'. In the British English form of 'expatriate', the first 'a' is a short vowel sound, as in the abbreviation. If you are to write an essay with your PhD, you may wish in future to properly research it.

    Oops. Let's amend the screed a bit.

    Finally, my old pal Marc Herman, whose first album Neighborhood Dog is still, still one of my favorite local albums ever, writes:

    I thought you might be interested in a fairly unique reason to favor the "mic" spelling, so here it is:

    My name is Marc. Sonically the same as Mark, it has always bugged me to be one of many in a classroom/office/party/family with the same name. I wish my parents had bestowed upon me a less common name (something fun, like Zachary!). The saving grace of my common name is the "c" at the end. Though in other regions of the world, the c-spelling is the norm, where I grew up in New Jersey, people were more familiar with the "Mark" spelling, and I've always been proud that my "c" set me apart. So, you see, I have a certain affinity for words that end with a "c" pronounced like a "k."

    While I applaud your celebration of "mike" as a rebellion against the more commonly accepted "mic," I stand behind my "mic" (pun intended) for its rebellion against the rules!

    I'd like to suggest we toss out the whole "open mic" phrase in favor of "open stage." I believe someone mentioned this earlier in reference to James O'Brien. I've seen "open stage" used from time to time, and I like it. We don't always need a microphone to perform. Furthermore, acoustic instruments, including the voice, sound better in their unamplified, pure form. I know, I know... you don't need a stage to perform, either. But the word "stage" conveys the notion that a designated performer has the floor ("open floor?" I don't think so...) for a period of time. An open stage is about granting individuals their ten minutes of fame. The attendees agree to give each participant his/her moment of our attention, and with that attention, we can each express ourselves through art. Not technology. The term, "Open Stage" leaves technology out of the event title, and this is good. For some, technology itself is the art form, and that's wonderful. But for the majority who play open-stages (singer-songwriters, poets, etc.), the event ain't about technology - it is about art.

    I gotta say, the "open stage" argument is pretty compelling. I just listed an open mike on my open mike list which points out on its Web page that it doesn't actually have a "mic". But that's probably even more hopeless a battle than the current one.

    1/16/08

    It appears that mic isn't the only odious offense to the principles of pronunciation. A correspondent reports:

    I'm not sure if this message will come to you rather late, but no matter. I loved this article. I too prefer "mike", for the verb-creating problems that "mic" poses. However, I'm not sure if this counts as another exception, but I have heard many many people refer to Vicodin as "vics," as in "Hey man, can you sell me a couple of those vics." So, although this exception does not really tip the scales, it might be worth noting.

    Dear me. I couldn't actually believe this when I read it, but the Internet assures me that it's correct. I am, of course, appalled.

    4/1/08

    A correspondent relates the following anecdote:

    All of this reminds me of a recent controversy in soccer (football). In the Italian league there is a team called Barcelona. You'll often seen it shortened to "Barca" (notice the change in spelling). When people began pronouncing this shortened version they would often say "barka". In time, though, the "barsa" pronunciation has become dominant. Interesting that I've never seen it written "Barce" or "Barka". It was amusing to hear sportscasters debate the best way to pronounce the word.

    I love this stuff. In "mic", we're facing a case where a vowel's pronounciation survives the word shortening, in spite of violating spelling generalizations; in this case here, we find a consonant.

    Update: apparently, my correspondent is a competent linguist but an inadequate geographer; Barcelona is in Spain.

    5/28/08

    Formerly-local wild man Eric Schwartz points out to me that the debate continues to rage out there on the Intertubes (search for "It's mike, darn it"). I'm delighted to report that just about every coherent argument that appears in the thread has already been made in these hallowed pages.

    4/25/09

    A correspondent may have identified another one of the rare cases like mic:

    I can't help myself, when I read "zine" I pronounce it with a long /zi:n/, just as it's spelled. (Yes, I learned phonics as a child, I suppose I'm crippled for life.) In the industry, it's pronounced as /ze:n/ (as if "zeen"). How does this fit into your analysis of various shortened forms? Of course, I suppose this problem has a root in the original spelling of "magazine"?

    So is this really another one of those cases? Probably. By all rights, zine should rhyme with mine, but in fact it's pronounced as it was before it was shortened. What makes me hesitate to endorse it entirely is the fact that it's preserving what's already an odd pronunciation; magazine should also rhyme with mine.

    The other interesting thing about this case is that it's a rare example where a shortened form chops off the beginning of the word, instead of the end.

    Otherwise, I got nothin'. I didn't say they were nonexistent; I said they were atypical...

    8/8/10

    This one's been sitting in my inbox since April, and it's just been mushrooming since. In April, the broadcast division of the Associated Press persuaded the AP Stylebook to switch is recommendation for the abbreviation of microphone from mike to mic, a decision which was announced at the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society in Philadelphia. I'm delighted to report that this little tirade made some peripheral appearances in the controversy.

    Bill Walsh, of the Washington Post and other activities, notified me of the AP decision and told me that he'd learned about my tirade from someone who posted a link to it on what I like to call "the Twitter" (or, on my crankier days, "you kids get off my lawn"). Bill fought the good fight on his Twitter feed for several days starting around April 16. It appears that, like me, he finds the idea that the past tense might miked while the present tense is mic to be jaw-droppingly stupid. When I revisited his feed today to write this up, finally, I found a link to a July column by Ben Zimmer, who's taken over "On Language" from the late William Safire. Ben has a nice summary of the history of mic, the AP brouhaha, and, finally, a link to - yes, indeedy - yours truly. And - best of all - he's on my side.

    Thank you, gentlemen.

    9/11/11

    Hey! It turns out that mic is an abbreviation for something else, too. A correspondent writes:

    A micrometer is a device that measures the thickness of something. It is commonly used in industry and by home craftsmen as well. When a person measures the thickness of something they mic/mike it. I googled this subject to find out the correct spelling.

    And, of course, found me. It turns out that he's confronted exactly the same issues I've discussed above, and one of his solutions is to use an apostrophe in the past tense, and he asks:

    What do you think about the form mic/mic'ed since there is no official correct spelling of this word?

    Well, as you can guess, I'm not crazy about this. The apostrophe isn't a terrible recourse, but what happens when you need the progressive form? "mic'ing" doesn't exactly cut it for me. No, I'm sticking with my previous position.

    But what's cool about this is that, like "coke", it turns out that "mike" is an abbreviation for multiple things.

    2/24/13

    It turns out that I'm not the only one who does research. A reader writes:

    I Googled "mic stand" 19,400,000 results. "Hmmm" I thought . . . "Losing again!"

    Then I Googled "mike stand", expecting to find . . . maybe . . . 5,000. (Based on your previous 1/4th ratio from Google searches)

    470,000,000 RESULTS ! ! ! !

    MIKE WINS AGAIN!

    So I typed in "open mic". 63,000,000 results.

    "open mike" . . . . . 637,000,000 ! ! !

    It appears that approximately 1 out of 24 people list the stands as "mic stands". 24 to 1 . . . it's a MIKE STAND!

    And . . . only about 1 in 10 go to "open mics"! 9 out of 10 go to the more nearly correct . . . "open mike"!

    I find it interesting that while "mike cable" draws a whopping 155,000,000 results, "mic cable" yields only a small 3% of that, at 4,870.000 results.

    That "sorta" implies that only only 1 out of 32 people buy mic cables, while the other 97% or so prefer buying mike cables.

    I think you're winning the battle!

    If I'd only had the presence of mind to check these numbers all those years ago, maybe we'd be able to tell if this little crusade of mine is making a difference.