Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Eye vs. brain vs. ear

Here's the mic/mike debate writ large -- or, at least, writ in big type at the top of the front page. I had to fumble with it for a minute or so, even though I could see the "SD" on the cap (and had deliberately opened the San Diego frontpage). That's because I read "Pads" as the word it already is -- since I don't have a phonetic alphabet, that's "pads" as in "fat dads" -- rather than a clipped version of "Padres," which I would think of as "pods."*

What does that have to do with mikes and mics? As with a lot of rules (so called) or laws or expectations of language, where you stand is often less interesting than how you got there -- how you derive "rules," how you put them into play, and how you inflict them on others, should you find yourself in charge of rules.

I never had much of a problem with the mike/mic thing, because I always thought the better choice was pretty self-evident. I had a bike, and a parental unit named Mike, and a reasonable pre-Sesame Street idea of what that "silent E" thing was up to. "Mike" seemed like the sensible way to shorten "microphone," partly because that's what grownups and experts did:

Mikes can be discussed or described in many ways. Here we will discuss them by microphone type, and their specific usage will be described in a later chapter.**

Announce microphones generally will be high-quality, unidirectional mikes (to control unwanted studio or audience noise) unless two performers are going to use the microphone at the same time, in which case a bi-directional mike is sometimes used.***

Derived forms work in the same way. Hunter Thompson wrote about bikers, not bicers. And how would you pronounce these gerunds?

Dicing the banjo requires a handsaw and a pair of metal shears.
Micing the banjo requires delicate professional skill.

The OED seems inclined toward my side; it dates "mike" to 1926, "mic" to 1961. So imagine my surprise, years later, to find out that I was apparently an irrational loony. "Open mike" means an Irishman in surgery!**** There's no "k" in "microphone"!***** Everybody knows the only proper spelling is "mic"!

Well, live and learn. I think this is partly generational; people my age and up seem to think "mike" is natural; people a decade and more younger seem to think "mic" is natural. The cool part is where rules come from: who makes them, what they say, how they're grounded, and how flexible or inflexible they are. If I was in charge of the how-to-spell-clippings rule, it'd look something like:

Most clippings are words on their own. Spell them the way you pronounce them. If a clipping resembles an existing word, you should expect people to read it that way. No, you don't need an apostrophe in 'phone. If in doubt, send me a note and I will issue a fiat. (not a Fiat, which is pronounced "tow truck").

Long story short, I probably wouldn't refer to the San Diego baseball team as the Pads, which sounds wrong, but I'd be wary of the Pods on "Body Snatchers" grounds (apparently this does have some journalistic currency, though). I'd suggest avoiding the issue in writing altogether.

Isn't spelling fun?

* I don't know if there's a written standard on this; observations from California readers are welcome.
** Oringel's "Audio Control Handbook," fourth edition, 1972
*** Stasheef et al., "The television program: Its direction and production," fifth edn, 1975. A couple of illustrations use "mic." -- with period --as the short form.
**** "WTF" barely begins to scratch the surface sometimes, doesn't it?

***** An orthographic feature shared with "bicycle" and "Michael," if you're scoring along at home.



Blogger tsl said...

Definitely 'mike'.

The converse problem comes up in the computer world: how to pronounce technical terms that are abbreviations of English words, such as `char' for 'character' and 'lib' for 'library'.

It seems that in the US they are more often pronounced as fragments of the parent word and in the UK more often as separate words in themselves.

3:13 PM, November 11, 2008  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Micing is bad enough, but how about miced?

4:03 PM, November 11, 2008  
Blogger Denise said...

Your argument is very well-reasoned and makes perfect sense. However, I still can't shake my feeling that it's "mic." Maybe because on computers, tape recorders, etc., that's what's written above the jack for that instrument: you plug it into the hole that says "mic," not "mike."
And yeah, when my SD friend said "Pads" I had to do the audible version of the double-take. I guess it's all about context.

5:03 PM, November 11, 2008  
Anonymous TB said...

Regardless of how you feel about mike/mic, an Irishman in surgery would be an "open mick," not an "open mike."

4:20 PM, November 12, 2008  
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