I Don’t Like ‘Mic’

Open Mic Night LogoSome years ago, my daughter Elizabeth Yagoda decided she wanted to be known by this first name.

I render the name in sound rather than letters because of the way she spells it, which is “Lizy.” According to my understanding of traditional English phonics and spelling conventions, this should be pronounced to rhyme with prize-he. However, she hasn’t encountered any confusion or pushback on her name, which supports my sense that some traditional English phonics and spelling conventions are changing.

Exhibit B on that point is a word in this sentence published by The New York Times a couple of weeks ago: ”The mic has three settings, one for voice, one for music and one raw, enhancement audio.” The word I refer to, of course, is mic. I grew up used to the abbreviation for microphone being spelled as well as pronounced mike; to me, mic would come out of people’s mouths as mick.

Only a handful of other abbreviations occur, or have been presented, to me whose pronunciation flouts conventional phonetics. Three of them flout it the same way: Reg (short for Reginald), veg (short for vegetable), and frig (short for refrigerator, popular in the 1940s and 50s until it was quite properly supplanted by fridge). Zine, short for magazine, would be expected to be pronounced to rhyme with sign, but it can be excused because it follows the spelling and pronunciation of the longer form.

Mic is doubly problematic because English simply does not have a robust tradition of words ending in c. Short words, that is: fantastic, antic, ironic, and at least 3,639 others of two or more syllables are well established. The list I just linked to contains only five one-syllable words, none of which is mic and all of which (except for chic, which, being French, doesn’t apply to this discussion) rhyme with mick. 

One of the remaining four is an abbreviation—pic, short for picture. Of the rest, the OED defines hic as “An imitation of the sound of a hiccup, esp. as an interruption in the speech of a drunken person,” and cites  Punch (1898) ”What’s (hic) Cuba to him, or he to (hic) Cuba?” Tic can refer to a repeated twitching, especially in the face, or by extension to an obsessive or reflexive behavior. It, too, derives from French, specifically the name for the facial neuralgia leading to twitching, tic douloureux.

The final word, sic, has two main meanings. The first comes from the Latin for so or thus and refers to a parenthetical insertion indicating that the perceived mistake in a quotation was made by the original speaker or writer. The second, almost always in the imperative mood and followed by “him,” is a verb inciting or encouraging a dog or animal (or by extension a person) to attack some other creature (or by extension a task or problem). The OED describes it as an Americanism derived from seek; interestingly, the original citation from 1845 and the majority of them through about 1950 are spelled sick. For examples, in Light in August (1932), Faulkner writes, “They couldn’t run him away if they was to sick them bloodhounds on him.” The adoption of the sic spelling has led to the unfortunate past-tense form sicced, which is weird.

There are also at least a few of proper names not mentioned in the list: Nic (an unaccountably recently popular nickname [not "nicname"] for Nicholas), Vic, and Bic, a trade name for ballpoint pens. All are mick-rhymers. (And note that our mike-rhyming two-wheeled vehicles are bikes, not bics.)

Getting back to the issue at hand, the OED acknowledges both abbreviations for microphone. It cites mike being used as early as 1926, while its first mic spotting is from a 1961 show-business glossary. As Ben Zimmer’s 2010 New York Times column on the subject noted, mic was initially popular among recording-engineer types, who would apply to hardware such labels as “Mic-in” and “Mic-out.” (Zimmer provided me with the info cited above on frig.) I would suggest that such labels were primarily meant to be written, not said. Then rap music came on the scene. In another Times column, Zimmer named the 1979 song “Rapper’s Delight” as a landmark, with the line, “I’m gonna rock the mic till you can’t resist.” 

Rap being so much a spoken thing, I wonder how Zimmer knows how the performers of “Rappers Delight,” the Sugar Hill Gang, elected to spell this word. But in any case, mic did indeed become associated with rap and then spread wide, leading to such valuable expressions as mic drop, defined on Urban Dictionary as “When a performer or speaker intentionally drops/throws the microphone on the floor after an awesome performance.” Mic’s popularity really picked up in the 1990s, as the Google Ngram Viewer below suggests. (Ngram Viewer provides data only till 2008; the trend suggests that by now, mic has caught up to mike.)

Screen Shot 2013-07-22 at 3.10.43 PM

The key event in mainstream acceptance came in 2010, when the Associated Press—noting that open mic night got eight times as many Google hits as open mike night—recognized mic as the preferred spelling. However, it retained mike for the verb form, as in “she was miked for sound.” This is clearly inconsistent, but probably unavoidable, as miced could not but be pronounced to rhyme with iced.

The New York Times first used mic in a 2000 George Vecsey column fancifully describing the opening round of the NFL playoffs: “First, give the public eight teams that by and large resemble Bill Murray’s prototypical cocktail-lounge singer with his shirt open to his navel, crooning erratically into a squawky mic.” It subsequently became the Times‘s preferred form, as witness the quote I started with.

I thought I was upset about mic, until I read this Web page. In a screed that you can follow over the course of nine years, the linguist and musician Samuel Bayer covers every inch of the issue and shows what it really means to be peeved. It actually made me calm down a little bit.

Now, abbreviating Wednesday as Weds., that is truly wrong.


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